The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has dropped off a 15-page report at the South Dakota Health Department that contains the key for getting all the nation’s closed meat plants up and running — find people to work who are without COVID-19 infections and have them follow CDC guidelines.

“Strategies to reduce COVID-19 transmissions at the Smithfield Foods Sioux Falls pork plant” is the product of several day’s efforts by a CDC team. It included a visit to the Smithfield pork plant on April 16-17. Smithfield ceased production indefinitely on April 14. As of April 12, there were 238 employees confirmed with COVID-19 infections.

Since then, the number of Smithfield employees with COVID-19 has grown to 783 with contact tracing finding another 206 likely infected by people who worked at the pork plant.

The CDC team used the report to call upon Smithfield Foods to implement stronger measures to control the spread of COVID-19 when the plant re-opens. It has the capacity to kill and process 20,000 hogs a day, and the “Sioux-land” area of South Dakota, Iowa, and Nebraska surrounding the plant is known for hog production.

Two Smithfield employees have died as a result of COVID-19 infections — 64-year-old Augustin Rodriguez and 61-year-old Craig Franken.  Both men had worked at the pork plant for decades, going back prior to 1995 when Smithfield purchased the historic John Morrell plant. That was just two years after South Dakota Gov. George Mickelson died in a plane crash while returning home from a trip to try and “save the John Morrell plant.”

Smithfield has since grown into the nation’s largest pork processor and hog producer.

The CDC says pork plant employees should wear face masks and the company should have replacements readily available.  Hard hats and face shields should be sanitized at the end of each shift.

Truck drivers entering the plant should be provided with face masks and screened for COVID-19 symptoms.   And contractors and all federal meat inspectors in the plant should be “encouraged or required” to wear face masks and face shields while in the building.

USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has not provided face masks for the nation’s 8,000 meat and poultry inspectors. Since early April, it has provided a $50 reimbursement to inspectors who’ve purchased face masks on their own.

Since then, FSIS has been trying to obtain the hard-to-find face masks’ and taking plenty of union complaints about the agency’s failure to take the action sooner.

The FSIS, however, has wanted CDC guidance on dealing with the novel virus. At Smithfield in Sioux Falls, the CDC says the company should install no-touch sinks, soap dispensers, sanitizer dispensers, and paper towel dispensers whenever possible.

CDC also wants Smithfield to re-configure workspaces so they are staggered and not across from one another. It wants barriers between employees, social distancing, hand-washing, and personnel protective equipment adopted by all employees. 

One-way pathways should be deployed to avoid employees coming into facial contact in the building’s narrow hallways.  In the cafeterias, table configurations should be changed to reduce crowding, and shifting start times and break times and alternating locker locations should all reduce employee density inside the plant.

Smithfield needs to change policy to ensure that employees are not penalized for calling in sick, and it should not require a positive COVID-19 test.

And all training and messaging should be available in the native languages of the employees.

Food manufacturers, mostly meat, have curtailed or eliminated productions in a couple of dozen plants, mostly in the Upper Midwest,  as employees express reluctance about going back to work where others maybe ill with COVID-19  Much of the shutdown activity has occurred during the last ten days or so::

  • The Birds Eye frozen foods plant in Darien, WI, suspended most operations from April 23 to April 27,  reports owner Conagra Brands Inc.
  • Also on April 23, Tyson Fresh Meats, Inc., announced that its beef facility at Pasco, WA, will temporarily halt production while employees undergo testing.  Health officials in Walla Walla, Benton, and Franklin Counties in Washington will work with the company to test its more than 1,400 staff members for COVID-19 as soon as possible.
  • Tyson Fresh Meats on April 22 announced plans to indefinitely suspend operations at its Waterloo, IA, pork plant. The facility, the company’s largest pork plant, has been running at reduced levels of production due to worker absenteeism and will stop production mid-week until further notice. The facility’s 2,800 employees will be invited to come to the plant shortly for COVID-19 testing.
  • The pork processing facility in Logansport, IN, running on limited production since April 20, will stop production entirely on or before April 25, according to Tyson Fresh Meats. Employees will be invited for COVID-19 testing.
  • Comfrey Prime Pork in Windom, MN, closed through the end of the week.
  • JBS on April 22  curtailed operations at its Brooks, Alberta, Canada, beef plant.
  • Conagra Brands Inc. temporarily closed doors at a frozen meat facility in Mashall, MO, for the 10-day period from April 17 to April 27.
  • JBS indefinitely closed its pork plant in Worthington, MN, on April 21. Only 60 miles from the closed Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, it was an alternative market for some pork producers.
  • Also on April 21, Don Miguel Foods LLC closed its Mexican prepared foods manufacturing plant in Dallas for two weeks, according to the MegaMex Foods Corp.
  • After closing Sioux Falls, Smithfield Foods on April 16 closed a bacon and sausage facility in Cudahy, WI, and a spiral and smoked ham plant in Martin City, MO.  Those closures are expected to be for two weeks each.
  • JBS USA closed the big beef plant in Greeley, CO  on April 14 after it came under a closure order from the Weld County Health Department.  It could re-open any time after the health department order expires on April 24.

An estimated 25  percent of pork processing capacity is not currently available.

CDC’s Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers to Plan and Respond to COVID19 — referenced in the Smithfield repor t–  provides more education around steps employees can take to protect themselves at work and at home. The guidance includes the following suggestions for communications with employees:

  • Employees can take steps to protect themselves at work and at home. Older people and people with serious chronic medical conditions are at higher risk for complications.
  • Follow the policies and procedures of your employer related to illness, cleaning and disinfecting, and work meetings and travel.
  •  Stay home if you are sick, except to get medical care. Learn what to do if you are sick.
  •  Inform your supervisor if you have a sick family member at home with COVID-19. Learn what to do if someone in your house is sick.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Use hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol if soap and water are not available.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze or use the inside of your elbow. Throw used tissues in the trash and immediately wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use a hand sanitizer containing at least 60 percent alcohol.

CDC’s website also references

  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces such as workstations, keyboards, telephones, handrails, and doorknobs. Dirty surfaces can be cleaned with soap and water prior to disinfection. To disinfect, use products that meet EPA’s criteria for use against SARS-CoV-2, the cause of COVID-19, and are appropriate for the surface.
  •  Avoid using other employees’ phones, desks, offices, or other work tools and equipment, when possible. If necessary, clean and disinfect them before and after use.
  • Practice social distancing by avoiding large gatherings and maintaining distance —  approximately 6 feet or 2 meters — from others.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

  • Workers should continue to wear PPE required for the job tasks being performed.
  • Provide appropriate PPE for specific jobs and ensure it is used by all workers as needed.
  •  Use videos or in-person visual demonstrations of proper PPE donning and doffing procedures. Maintain social distancing during these demonstrations.
  •  Emphasize that care must be taken when putting on and taking off PPE to ensure that the worker or the item does not become contaminated.
  • PPE should be: (1) disposed; or (2) properly disinfected and stored in a clean location when not in use.
  • PPE worn at the facility should not be taken home.
  • Consider the use of face shields or other types of PPE that may serve as both PPE and source control:
  • If helmets are being used, use face shields designed to attach to helmets

And the last word

  • The U.S. government is developing additional guidance for meat and poultry processing facilities to prevent and mitigate the spread of SARS-CoV-2 between employees while at work. Employers are urged to review this guidance when it becomes available and institute recommended controls where feasible.
  • Consult with USDA to determine if proposed controls are acceptable with regard to food safety and sanitation. Continue communicating and working with the South Dakota Department of Health, strategic community partners, and union leadership.

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