- Tyson will reopen its pork processing plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa today, according to a company statement. The plant was shut down two weeks ago, after more than two dozen workers tested positive for COVID-19. Operations at the plant, which has about 1,400 employees and produces pork products for retail and foodservice, are restarting on a limited basis, the company said.
- About 200 cases of COVID-19 — including two that were fatal — are thought to have stemmed from the plant, according to the Des Moines Register.
- All employees at the reopened Tyson plant have been tested for coronavirus, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds told the Des Moines Register. The company says it has been proactive in taking measures to slow the spread of coronavirus in its factories, including requiring protective facial coverings, installing about 150 infrared devices to take employee temperatures as they walk into facilities and encouraging social distancing by installing dividers and creating more break space.
While the industry is deemed essential and workers have continued to do their jobs, COVID-19 infections have shut down several plants in the last several weeks. So far in April, at least 13 meat processing plants in the U.S. and Canada have curtailed operations because of employee outbreaks, according to Food Dive records.
Tyson's Columbus Junction plant is the first large plant to come back online after an extended shutdown. This plant was initially planned to be shut down for a week, according to The Wall Street Journal. The company has not disclosed specific measures to discourage transmission at this plant, though Tyson Foods President Dean Banks said in the statement that the company is creating an environment where the virus is less likely to spread.
Tyson's Columbus Junction plant was one of the first meat facilities to close because of coronavirus, and there's no track record of how this kind of reopening has gone in the United States. The two-week halt in operations — the same length of time that doctors recommend people with mild cases of COVID-19 or who may have been exposed to the virus to self-quarantine — has given time for the virus to make itself evident in employees, as well as for some of those who have been sick to recover.
In places like meat processing plants, where people work in close quarters, experts have said it is difficult to stop an outbreak once it has started. However, Tyson is keeping employees apart and providing time for any remnants of the virus present in the plant to become inactive.
With so many other factories and processing plants shut down because of COVID-19 outbreaks, industry eyes are on Tyson. If workers stay healthy, then the meat processing giant may have found a winning strategy. However, outside of factories, the virus is continuing to spread in the general population. There is no guarantee it won't be brought back into the factory as it opens its doors. Data available on Google showed that Iowa had its largest spike in confirmed cases, 389, on Sunday.
And while panic-shopping from consumers stocking up their pantries has slowed, market tracking groups indicate consumers are still buying more meat. According to Nielsen statistics emailed to Food Dive, from mid-March to mid-April, fresh meat sales were up 57.3% compared to 2019.
After Smithfield shut down its massive Sioux Falls, South Dakota processing plant last week — a plant that is responsible for 5% of all pork products in the United States — company President and CEO Kenneth Sullivan said that the nation was being pushed "perilously close to the edge" of the meat supply.