Five Smithfield Foods plants now shuttered

Published 6:49 am Tuesday, May 5, 2020

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A sausage plant in St. Charles, Illinois is the latest Smithfield Foods facility to shutter due to COVID-19.

According to a press release the Kane County, Illinois Health Department issued on Friday, April 25, the closure is the result of an order the department issued to Smithfield Foods Inc. earlier that day, which required the company to suspend its operations at the St. Charles plant “so that the health department can work with the company in mitigation efforts as well as providing education relative to social distancing and employee safety relative to personal protective equipment (PPEs).”

The St. Charles plant is the fifth Smithfield Foods facility nationwide to close due to COVID-19 since the start of April. The company announced its first closure, a South Dakota plant, on April 12, followed by two more plants — one in Missouri and one in Wisconsin — on April 15. The day before the St. Charles plant was ordered to close, Foods had announced it would suspend operations at another Illinois plant in the city of Monmouth, after “a small portion” of that plant’s 1,700 employees tested positive for COVID-19, according to a company press release.

Asked if “work with the company in mitigation efforts” and “providing education relative to social distancing and … personal protective equipment” meant the health department had any reason to believe the St. Charles plant had not been using either prior to the shutdown, Susan Stack, communications coordinator for the KCHD, said, “I can’t speak to the use of PPE or social distancing in the plant at this time.”

As the investigation is ongoing, a reopening date is uncertain at this time,” she added, stating that it was “not conclusive” whether there were any confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the St. Charles facility.

Foods, however, denied allegations that the company was not doing enough at its various plants to protect employees, particularly in regard to providing face masks and other PPE.

We are doing everything we can, as fast as we can,” said Keira Lombardo, executive vice president of corporate affairs and compliance, in an April 24 press release intended to “address misinformation as it confronts COVID-19” according to the document. “There are, however, inescapable realities about our industry. Meat processing facilities, which are characterized by labor intensive assembly line style production, are not designed for social distancing. Employees often work in close proximity on production lines. Similarly, space constraints exist in common areas such as cafeterias, break and locker rooms and bathrooms.”

Overnight, the need for masks and face shields was thrust upon us and the nation,” Lombardo added. “Procuring these items, at a time when PPE supply chains were stressed to the max, was challenging to say the least. Even today, we are struggling to keep inventories in stock.”

As for what this latest closure means for Foods’ facilities here in Smithfield, Lombardo assured The Smithfield Times via email that its plant here in town remains operational, but declined to comment on whether there had been any reported cases of COVID-19 among local workers.

Out of respect for our employees’ legal privacy, we will not confirm COVID-19 cases in our facilities,” she said.

She did, however, state in her earlier press release that, “Virtually every major plant in the country is dealing with positive cases.”

President Donald Trump is expected to sign an executive order compelling meat plants to remain open, though by press time on Tuesday it was unclear if this would force plants that had already closed due to COVID-19 outbreaks or suspected outbreaks to reopen. According to The Washington Post, the order invokes the Defense Production Act, classifying meat plants as essential infrastructure that must remain open to head off a food supply shortage.

The Associated Press reports the order came after “industry leaders warned that consumers could see meat shortages in a matter of days after workers at major facilities tested positive for the virus.” A senior White House official, speaking to the AP on condition of anonymity, reportedly said the administration was working to prevent a situation in which a majority of processing plants shut down for a period of time, which could lead to an 80-percent drop in the availability of meat in supermarkets. By press time Tuesday afternoon, Lombardo was unable to be reached for comments as to how this latest development would affect Smithfield Foods’ efforts to stop COVID-19 outbreaks at its facilities. Stack, on Tuesday afternoon, said that day was the first she had heard of the executive order, and that her health department would “need to take this under advisement,” before deciding on how to conduct its investigation of the St. Charles plant.

As of Tuesday, the Virginia Department of Health was tracking six outbreaks of COVID-19 in its Western Tidewater Health District, which includes Isle of Wight County, Southampton County and the cities of Franklin and Suffolk. Five of these are reported to be at long-term care facilities and the sixth is reported to be at a correctional facility. Statewide, 45 outbreaks are linked to congregate settings, which the VDH defines to include residential communities, businesses and other communal venues, but none of these outbreaks are in the Western Tidewater district.