- At least 153 employees at a Smithfield-owned Farmer John plant in California have reportedly tested positive for coronavirus, roughly 10% of its workforce, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union. The union is calling for the plant's "immediate closure."
- The plant is located in Vernon, California, a small city near Los Angeles that has had a coronavirus outbreak across its industrial buildings. The UFCW Local 770 released a statement last week saying safety measures at the plant were insufficient.
- "Working conditions inside the plant are similar to what we are seeing nationwide in Smithfield plants," John Grant, president of UFCW Local 770, said in a release. "Workers are still too close together on the line, in the breakroom, the bathrooms and other such hubs."
During the pandemic, more than 30 meatpacking plants nationwide closed temporarily under pressure from local authorities and their own workforces. Slaughter capacity for pork and beef has declined by 30%-40% as a result, according to USDA data.
The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health is reportedly investigating the Farmer John plant. Smithfield acquired the brand, which produces Dodger Dogs and other pork products, from Hormel Foods as part of a 2016 transaction.
Smithfield did not respond to Food Dive's request to comment on the calls to close the plant at press time.
This isn't the first location at which Smithfield has faced calls for a closure. Hundreds of employees tested positive at its massive pork processing facility in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which the company decided to shut down after calls from the governor and mayor.
As the novel coronavirus spread rapidly among workers in meat plants in April, CEO Kenneth Sullivan warned the closures were "pushing our country perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply."
As other big meat companies echoed similar concerns, President Donald Trump issued an executive order designating meat processing plants as "critical infrastructure," using the Defense Production Act (DPA) to try to keep them open during the pandemic. Some plants reopened shortly thereafter. However, many industry members raised concerns the order would result in more workers falling ill.
signaled the federal government would assert ultimate authority, saying, "no part of the joint meat processing guidance should be construed to indicate that state and local authorities may direct a meat and poultry processing facility to close." That could give Smithfield reason to resist additional calls to close the Farmer John plant.
Besides Farmer John, about eight other essential companies have reported infections as well, including four other meatpacking plants, a producer of baked goods, a green tea plant and a coffee processing factory, CBS Los Angeles reported.
Across the food industry, at least 76 workers have died and more than 20,000 have tested positive for the coronavirus. Meat plants have become hotspots for the virus, because emplyees often work shoulder-to-shoulder.
Even though Smithfield said it implemented additional safety measures at its plants, UFCW 770 said workers at Farmer John have pushed the company for more safety standards, workplace protections and information about infections at the plant. "Information has been incomplete and safety measures insufficient," the union said.
"We need to feel safe on the job and we do not," Rina Chavarria, who works at the Farmer John plant, said in a release. "We work hard every day. Smithfield has not taken steps to make sure workers are protected and now so many of us are getting sick. We can’t go to the plant under these conditions."