Saul Sanchez, a 78-year old “green hat” supervisor at the JBS beef plant in Greeley, CO, died from COVID-19 on April 7. He worked at the Greeley beef plant for more than 30 years.

After Sanchez was diagnosed and hospitalized in March, his family was frustrated by JBS officials being unresponsive to their attempts to report that their loved one might have unknowingly exposed others in the beef plant to the virus — and that maybe JBS might want to do something about it.

In his death, the Sanchez family was credited by the Greeley Tribune with breaking open “the usually impenetrable concrete walls of the beef plant during a critical time.”

Since Sanchez’s death, JBS has announced numerous steps it is taking to keep its 4,500 Greeley employees safe including:

  • Increasing sanitation and disinfection efforts, including whole facility deep cleaning.
  • Promoting physical distancing by staggering starts, shifts, and breaks, and increasing spacing in cafeterias, break and locker rooms.
  • Dedicating staff to continuously clean facilities.
  • Temperature testing of all team members prior to entering our facilities.
  • Providing extra personal protective equipment (PPE), including protective masks.
  • Removing vulnerable populations from our facilities, offering full pay and benefits.
  • Requiring sick team members to stay at home from work.
  • Waiving short-term disability waiting periods.
  • Relaxing attendance policies so people don’t come to work sick.
  • Providing free 100 percent preventive care to all team members.
  • Offering free LiveHealth Online Services that allow for virtual doctor visits at no cost.

“Team member health and safety remains our top priority,” according to a JBS statement.  It said company officials are working with local health departments and following guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The past week will likely be remembered as the time when JBS and other food industry executives changed their tunes about their roles in the coronavirus outbreak with support for COVID-19 testing, plant cleansings, and even temporary closures.

In Sioux Falls, SD, Thursday, Smithfield Foods announced its plant there would close for three days after more than 80 employees tested positive for COVID-19, also known as coronavirus. Smithfield will suspend operations in a large section of the plant on April 11 and completely shutter the facility on April 12 and April 13.

A Smithfield news release sent to media on Thursday morning said the company is “taking this action out of an abundance of caution for its 3,700 employees in Sioux Falls, a portion of whom have tested positive for COVID-19.”

During the closure, Smithfield plans to clean and sanitize the plant and install additional physical barriers for improved social distancing. The company also said it has “instituted a series of stringent and detailed processes and protocols” following guidelines issued by the CDC.

The former John Morrell plant, Smithfield’s port production facility is near downtown Sioux Falls. State and city health officials view it as a COVID-19 “hotspot” because, as of Thursday, it accounted for almost one in every five of the state’s 447 cases.

Kenneth Sullivan, Smithfield president, and CEO underscored why the company’s Sioux Falls plant is considered “essential infrastructure” by state and federal officials. “Our Sioux Falls plant supplies nearly 130 million servings of food per week or about 18 million servings per day, to our country,” he said.

In Hazleton, PA, Cargill has sent 900 employees home “indefinitely” from a meat processing facility that usually is helping keep grocery store meat counters full.

“Our goal is to keep our 900 employees at this case-ready protein facility healthy and minimize risk within the Hazleton community, which has been greatly impacted by COVID-19,” Cargill said. “Our facility will re-open as soon as is it is safe to do so.”

John Nash, who heads Cargill’s protein operations in North America, said the company is adding temperature testing, additional cleaning and sanitizing, and social distancing measures to its Hazleton facility. It will also stagger work breaks and offer more flexible shifts while prohibiting visitors when it re-opens.

At Hazelton in normal times, Cargill produces ground beef, steaks, beef roasts, and pork products for grocery stores across the country. Nash said Cargill “provides an essential service to the world” and will continue during the current crisis to “keep markets moving.”

In Ontario, Canada, Maple Leaf Foods suspended operations at Brampton after three employees tested positive for COVID-19. While closed, Maple Leaf will deep clean the plant and further investigate the spread of the virus.

And in Columbus Junction, IA, Tyson Foods ceased operations at its pork plant after 24 cases of COVID-19 were reported at the facility. Tyson is shifting livestock from the Columbus Junction pork plant to other facilities.

During the temporary closure, Tyson will make the safety and cleanliness improvements to help mitigate the spread of the virus, including deep cleaning and sanitizing. It is also installing dividers between work areas for social distancing. Face masks and other personnel protective equipment are being deployed for the re-opening.

The steps the meat industry is taking are also being embraced by the its regulator. USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) on April 9 let meat inspectors know that they may now wear face masks. In a notice, FSIS said:

“The CDC is now recommending the voluntary use of face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain, especially in areas of significant community-based transmission. Per the CDC, the purpose of wearing a face covering is to help prevent the transmission of coronavirus from individuals who may be carrying or infected with the virus but are not showing symptoms,” the notice said.

“The Agency’s mission-essential workforce, whose duties require they continue to work at their primary job site every day, or who come into work intermittently at labs and headquarters, and who do not typically wear face coverings as part of their jobs, may consider wearing a face-covering consistent with CDC recommendations.”

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