The Waterloo facility will stop production mid-week until further notice, the company said. The plant, which is the company’s biggest pork processing facility, has been running at reduced capacity due to worker absenteeism.
Tyson Foods said that all 2,800 employees at the plant will be asked to undergo COVID-19 testing later in the week and that they would continue to be paid while furloughed.
Meat processing workers are particularly susceptible to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) virus, commonly known as the novel coronavirus, because they typically stand shoulder-to-shoulder on the line and congregate in crowded locker rooms and cafeterias.
The company said the plant would be closing despite new safety measures introduced in response to the outbreak.
“Protecting our team members is our top priority and the reason we’ve implemented numerous safety measures during this challenging and unprecedented time,” said Steve Stouffer, group president of Tyson Fresh Meats. “Despite our continued efforts to keep our people safe while fulfilling our critical role of feeding American families, the combination of worker absenteeism, COVID-19 cases and community concerns has resulted in our decision to stop production.”
Stouffer said the plant closure would have a detrimental knock-on effect on the pork supply chain.
“The closure has significant ramifications beyond our company, since the plant is part of a larger supply chain that includes hundreds of independent farmers, truckers, distributors and customers, including grocers,” Stouffer said. “It means the loss of a vital market outlet for farmers and further contributes to the disruption of the nation’s pork supply.”
Prior to the CCP virus outbreak, U.S. hog farmers were poised for a good year with expectations of climbing prices amid soaring domestic and foreign demand.
Instead, virus-driven restaurant closures have contributed to an estimated $5 billion in losses for the industry. Some farmers have resorted to killing piglets because plunging sales mean there is no room to hold additional animals in increasingly cramped conditions.
“We are in crisis and need immediate government intervention to sustain a farm sector essential to the nation’s food supply,” said Howard Roth, a pig farmer from Wauzeka, Wisconsin, and president of the National Pork Producers Council, an industry trade group.
“Sadly it’s true that euthanizing is a question that’s going to come up on farms,” Roth said.
In a bid to help farmers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced on Friday it would spend $3 billion to buy fresh produce, dairy, and meat that will be sent to food banks.
The Waterloo plant closure follows reports of four Tyson Foods employees linked to a poultry facility in Georgia dying after becoming infected with COVID-19.
Spokesman Gary Mickelson told The Associated Press that three of the employees worked at the company’s chicken processing plant in Camilla, while the fourth person worked in a supporting job outside the plant.
Two other Tyson Foods workers died from the virus at its plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.