All over North America, meatpackers are bracing for a new wave of coronavirus cases as they try to avoid the shutdowns that left supermarket shelves empty during the early days of the pandemic.
In Canada, Cargill Inc. has temporarily idled one of its beef plants after some employees tested positive for the coronavirus. The plant will be kept shut at least through this week.
According to Newsmax, JBS, the world’s top meat producer, sent thousands of 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.
Meat producers — be it beef, pork, or chicken — are looking to prevent the disruption that caused several plants to shut down during the spring, which curbed meat supplies as consumers stockpiled their fridges.
Executives say that companies are now better prepared as they spent millions of dollars to reconfigure their factories, implement social distancing, and distribute the protective equipment that workers need to stay safe. At the same time, they keep the food supply chain going.
A labor union executive warned that the efforts to keep the plants running came at a cost — extra hours took a physical toll on the workers.
“I don’t expect to see the same issues,” Jon Nash, head of protein for Cargill in North America, said during an interview. “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,” he said.
On Thursday, Cargill said that it was temporarily shutting down its beef processing plant in Ontario because of “an abundance of caution as our local workforce deals with the community-wide impacts of Covid-19.” It hasn’t yet decided when it will reopen.
“This is not just a Cargill spread, but community-wide spread in Guelph,” about 56 miles (90 kilometers) west of Toronto, said April Nelson, a spokeswoman for the company.
JBS has also said that it had already sent more than 5,000 workers home in the US as the coronavirus cases began to escalate in October. Sanderson Farms chief executive Joe Sanderson said infections are rising among its workers as cases increase in Texas, Mississippi, Georgia, the Carolinas, and Louisiana.
“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,” he said at an earnings call Thursday. “It’s becoming more of a challenge for us right now than it has been since this pandemic started.”
As Newsmax reported, meatpackers 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.
“Smithfield has invested more than $700 million in extensive measures aimed at Covid-19 prevention,” said Keira Lombardo, chief administrative officer. Those include testing facilities, air purification systems, expansion of break and lunchrooms, and adding new employees whose sole job is to ensure social distancing and sanitation practices are implemented correctly.
“We have also implemented leave programs to ensure that employees in high-risk categories can remain at home with pay,” she said.
According to Andre Nogueira, chief executive officer of the American unit of JBS, the biggest impact of fewer workers is being felt in the final product, where some less popular cuts are going to render, while some meats aren’t being de-boned.
“From an operational perspective, I’m less concerned than I was a month and a half ago,” he said. “We have hired more people, but we couldn’t offset” the employees who were sent home, he said.
The US meat industry wants its workers to be among the top priority for the vaccines once health-care workers and people in long-term care facilities get shots, said the North American Meat Institute earlier this month.
To prevent another shortage of meat supplies, this might indeed need to be done.