IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Tyson Foods suspended operations Wednesday at an Iowa plant that is critical to the nation's pork supply but had been blamed for fueling a massive coronavirus outbreak in the community.
The company said the indefinite closure of the Waterloo, Iowa, plant would deny a vital market to hog farmers and further disrupt the nation's meat supply. Tyson had kept the facility, its largest pork plant, open in recent days over the objections of local officials.
The plant can process 19,500 hogs per day, accounting for nearly 4% of U.S. pork processing capacity, according to the National Pork Board.
More than 180 infections have been linked to the plant and officials expect that number to dramatically rise. The company said that mass testing of its 2,800 workers would begin later this week.
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In addition to those sick, hundreds of workers had stayed home from work out of fear of catching the virus. The plant had been running at reduced production levels.
Employers have struggled to contain the virus in meatpacking plants, where workers toil side by side on production lines and often share crowded locker rooms, cafeterias and rides to work. While plants have added safety measures, public health experts say social distancing is virtually impossible in them.
Several packing plants have temporarily closed after large outbreaks, including a Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and a JBS USA plant in Worthington, Minnesota. Others have stayed open or resumed production after pauses for worker testing and cleaning.
“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,” Tyson Fresh Meats president Steve Stouffer said.
He warned that the closure would have “significant ramifications beyond our company” since it's part of a supply chain that includes farmers, truckers, distributors and grocers.
Tyson said workers would be compensated while the plant is closed and the timing of reopening would depend on several factors, including the outcome of testing.
The Black Hawk County Board of Health on Tuesday had called on Tyson or Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds to temporarily close the plant. The board warned that its continued operation would exacerbate the virus' spread through the county, where confirmed cases and hospitalizations have recently skyrocketed.
A 65-year-old employee in the plant's laundry department died Sunday after contracting the virus, the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier newspaper reported.
Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart and scores of local officials had also called for a temporary shutdown, saying Tyson was putting its workforce in danger. Iowa’s worker safety agency said Tuesday that it had begun an investigation there.
The plant employs many blacks, Latinos and refugees, populations that comprise a hugely disproportionate share of Iowa's coronavirus cases.
The governor and the Iowa Department of Public Health had rejected calls for a closure, saying they were working with Tyson to keep the plant open.
Reynolds argued that the economic harm caused by plant closures outweighed the health risks to workers, warning that farmers with no markets may have to euthanize their pigs.
She said that “people are gonna get" the virus in large workplaces and that most will experience mild or no symptoms.
Lawmakers said Wednesday an earlier closure would have better protected public health and been less harmful economically. “My concern is the impact this has had because we didn’t act soon enough," said Democratic Rep. Ras Smith of Waterloo.
Earlier this week, Tyson resumed operations at its pork processing plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa. That plant had been shut down for two weeks due to an outbreak linked to hundreds of infections and the deaths of two workers.
Associated Press writer David Pitt in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.