By Tom Polansek
CHICAGO (Reuters) – Tyson Foods Inc said on Thursday it will temporarily close an Iowa pork plant due to the coronavirus pandemic, a month after U.S. President Donald Trump ordered slaughterhouses to stay open to protect the country’s food supply.
Meat processors like Tyson Foods, WH Group’s Smithfield Foods and JBS USA temporarily closed about 20 slaughterhouses last month as workers fell ill with the new coronavirus, leading to shortages of certain products in grocery stores. Production remains lower than normal because of increased absenteeism and social distancing among employees.
An Iowa state official said 555 employees at Tyson’s Storm Lake plant tested positive for the virus, about 22% of the workforce.
Tyson will stop slaughtering hogs at the facility and finish processing the animals over the next two days, according to a statement.
It will resume operations next week following “additional deep cleaning and sanitizing of the entire facility,” the statement said. The closure is due partly to a delay in COVID-19 testing results and employee absences, according to Tyson.
Tyson said it conducted large-scale COVID-19 testing at the plant in northwestern Iowa and implemented safety measures to protect employees like requiring them to wear masks.
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union called on the Trump administration and meat companies to do more to protect workers. The union reported more than 3,000 infections and 44 deaths among U.S. meatpacking workers, up from 35 deaths as of May 12.
“Too many workers are being sent back into meatpacking plants without adequate protections in place, reigniting more outbreaks in the plants and our communities,” said Nick Nemec, a South Dakota farmer who is part of an advocacy group working with the union.
The Storm Lake plant slaughters about 17,250 pigs a day when it is running at full capacity, according to industry data. That accounted for about 3.5% of U.S. production before the pandemic.
(Reporting by Tom Polansek in Chicago; Editing by Matthew Lewis and Stephen Coates)