In Colorado, nearly a third of workers at a JBS USA beef factory have stayed at home amid safety concerns for the past two weeks, while a 30-year-old employee of the establishment died of the virus.
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And since the closure of an Olymel pork factory in Quebec on March 29, the number of workers tested positive for the coronavirus has quintupled to more than 50, according to their union.
The plant and at least 10 others in North America have temporarily closed or cut production in the past two weeks due to the pandemic, disrupting food supply chains that have struggled to keep up with growing demand from grocery stores .
More than a dozen interviews with American and Canadian plant workers, union leaders and industry analysts, the lack of protective equipment and the nature of the “shoulder to shoulder” work required to reverse engineer chickens, chopping beef and cutting hams highlight the risks for employees and limit production because some people give up low-paid work.
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Companies that have added protections, such as improving cleaning or spacing workers, say these measures are further slowing meat production.
Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork processor, said on Sunday it was closing a pork plant indefinitely, which accounts for about 4-5% of US production. He warned that factory closings were pushing the United States “dangerously close to the edge” in the supply of meat to grocers.
Locks to stop the spread of the coronavirus have prevented farmers around the world from delivering food to consumers. Millions of workers also cannot get to the fields for harvesting and planting, and there are too few truckers to move goods.
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The United States and Canada are among the world’s largest shippers of beef and pork. Food production has continued as governments try to secure sufficient supplies, even if they shut down large swathes of the economy.
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Closures and increased absenteeism among workers have contributed to lower livestock prices, with farmers finding fewer slaughter places.
Since March 25, lean pork futures have fallen 35% and live cattle prices have fallen 15%, which has weighed on the US agricultural economy.
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North American meat demand has dropped about 30% in the past month, as lower sales of restaurant meats like steaks and chicken wings offset higher retail demand for ground beef, said Christine McCracken, animal protein analyst at Rabobank.
Frozen meats in US cold stores remain plentiful, but supply could be reduced due to increased exports to protein-hungry China after a trade deal removed barriers to US meat purchases.
“There is a huge risk of additional plant closings,” said McCracken.
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As of Monday, JBS announced the closure of its Greeley, Colorado beef production plant, which accounts for about 5% of the country’s production, until April 24.
JBS previously had to cut production at the plant, as around 800 to 1,000 workers a day have stayed at home since late March, said Kim Cordova, president of the local union of food and commerce workers ( TUAC) which represents the employees. She added that the union was aware of at least 50 cases and two deaths among employees on Friday.
Factory worker Saul Sanchez, affectionately nicknamed “grandfather” among some colleagues, tested positive for the virus and died on April 7 at 78, according to his daughter, Beatriz Rangel. She said he had only been home from work before developing symptoms, including a low fever.
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“My heart is broken because my father was so loyal,” said Rangel.
Brazilian company JBS has confirmed that an employee with three decades of experience died from complications associated with COVID-19, without naming Sanchez. According to the company, he was never symptomatic at work and never worked in the establishment when he was sick.
JBS said it was working with federal and state governments to get testing for all employees at the plant.
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Weld County, where the plant is located, had the fourth-highest number of COVID-19 cases of any county in Colorado on Friday, according to the state. Health officials have confirmed cases among JBS workers.
JBS said high absenteeism at the factory has caused the process of cutting carcasses into pieces of beef to lag behind slaughter rates. The company disputed union figures on worker absences but failed to supply its own.
This has taken steps, including purchasing masks and installing Plexiglas shields in the dining rooms to protect employees, said Cameron Bruett, spokesperson for JBS USA.
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“MY LIFE IS IN JEOPARDY”
At the Wayne Farms chicken plant in Decatur, Alabama, some workers are upset that the company recently charged workers for masks, said Mona Darby, who inspects the chicken breasts there and is a local leader of hundreds of poultry workers for the retail, wholesale and Store Union departments.
“My life is in danger because we work side by side,” she said.
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Wayne Farms, which has annual sales in excess of $ 2 billion, is trying to get masks to distribute to employees, although supplies are limited, said spokesman Frank Singleton. He said he did not know of any cases where employees were accused of masks.
Workers at a Tyson Foods Inc. chicken factory in Shelbyville, Tennessee bought their own masks when the facilities ran out, said Kim Hickerson, who loads chicken into trucks there and is a union leader. Some talk about quitting because they are afraid of getting sick, he said.
“I just put him in the hands of God,” he said.
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Tyson, the leading US meat producer, is working to find more personal protective equipment for workers, said spokesman Worth Sparkman. The company has increased cleaning of facilities and has sought to space employees, which can slow production, according to a statement.
Workers lost confidence in Olymel after a coronavirus epidemic closed a factory in Yamachiche, Quebec, union spokesperson Anouk Collet said.
“They do not think the company has taken all the steps they could have taken to keep them safe,” she said.
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Company spokesman Richard Vigneault said the plant will reopen on Tuesday with new measures in place, such as dividing panels, masks and visors.
Marc Perrone, international president of the UFCW union, said that workers in meat plants are increasingly weighing concerns about their own safety and their responsibility to produce food.
“If we don’t take care of the food supply, the American people will panic,” he said.
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