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Coronavirus pandemic starting to hit American meat plants again

American Meat Packing Factory Photo: TheConversation

*American meat packing companies are now better prepared than earlier in the pandemic as more than 50,000 meatpacking workers in the US have tested positive for the Coronavirus and more than 260 have died

Isola Moses | ConsumerConnect

Meat packers across North America, again, are bracing for a resurgence of the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) cases, while trying to avoid the shutdowns that left supermarket shelves empty earlier in the pandemic.

Cargill Inc. has temporarily idled one of its beef plants in Canada after some employees tested positive.

Agency report says JBS, the world’s top meat producer, sent thousands of vulnerable United States (US) workers home on paid leave, while Sanderson Farms Inc. said it’s now facing higher absenteeism at its plants than earlier in the pandemic.

Producers of everything from beef to chicken are looking to prevent the sort of disruption that shut several plants during the spring, curbing meat supplies when consumers were stocking up their fridges.

Executives now say companies are better prepared, having spent millions of dollars to reconfigure factories, implement physical distancing and distribute the protective equipment workers need to stay safe while keeping the food supply chain running.

A labour union executive warns that efforts to keep plants running comes at a cost, with extra hours taking a physical toll on workers.

Jon Nash, Head of Protein for Cargill in North America, in an interview said: “I don’t expect to see the same issues.

“Generally speaking, our industry is better prepared to handle the challenges. We know what we are dealing with.

“We know a lot more than we ever did and I think our food supply chain is resilient to the point we will be O.K.”

Closely-held Cargill, the world’s largest agricultural commodities trader, said Thursday it was temporarily shutting down its beef processing plant in Ontario due to “an abundance of caution as our local workforce deals with the community-wide impacts of COVID-19.”

April Nelson, a spokeswoman for the company, also stated: “This is not just a Cargill spread, but community-wide spread in Guelph,” about 56 miles (90 kilometers) west of Toronto.

Earlier this month, JBS said it had sent more than 5,000 workers home in the US since coronavirus cases began to accelerate in October.

Joe Sanderson, Chief Executive Officer of the third-largest US chicken producer, said infections are rising among its workers as cases increase in Texas, Mississippi, Georgia, the Carolinas and Louisiana.

In regard to absenteeism at workplaces, Sanderson at an earnings call Thursday disclosed “we’re still running and we’re still running at our capacity, but there have been more instances of absentees now than we had all summer or back in the spring.

“It’s becoming more of a challenge for us right now than it has been since this pandemic started.”

Report indicates that the increase in cases across rural North America highlights the challenges meat packers face in preventing the virus from entering their facilities and spreading among the workforce.

More than 50,000 meatpacking workers in the U.S. have tested positive for the virus and more than 260 have died, according to data from the Food and Environment Reporting Network.

Meat packers have spent millions installing plexiglass dividers, expanding locker and cafeteria areas, providing masks and face shields. Foster Farms, a chicken producer in California, said it’s testing workers twice a week and has also removed at-risk employees from its factories.

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