Pandemic Is Starting to Hit North American Meat Plants Again

Date: 2020-12-18 18:27:03

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Meat packers across North America are bracing for a resurgence of coronavirus cases, trying to avoid the shutdowns that left supermarket shelves empty earlier in the pandemic.

Cargill Inc. has temporarily idled one of its beef plants in Canada after some employees tested positive. JBS, the world’s top meat producer, sent thousands of vulnerable U.S. workers home on paid leave, while Sanderson Farms Inc. said it’s now facing higher absenteeism at its plants than earlier in the pandemic.

Producers of everything from beef to chicken are looking to prevent the sort of disruption that shut several plants during the spring, curbing meat supplies when consumers were stocking up their fridges. Executives now say companies are better prepared, having spent millions of dollars to reconfigure factories, implement social distancing and distribute the protective equipment workers need to stay safe while keeping the food supply chain running. A labor union executive warns that efforts to keep plants running comes at a cost, with extra hours taking a physical toll on workers.

“I don’t expect to see the same issues,” Jon Nash, head of protein for Cargill in North America, said in 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.

Closely-held Cargill, the world’s largest agricultural commodities trader, said Thursday it was temporarily shutting down its beef processing plant in Ontario due to “an abundance of caution as our local workforce deals with the community-wide impacts of Covid-19.”

“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.

Earlier this month, JBS said it had sent more than 5,000 workers home in the U.S. since coronavirus cases began to accelerate in October. Joe Sanderson, chief executive officer of the third-largest U.S. chicken producer, said infections are rising among its workers as cases increase in Texas, Mississippi, Georgia, the Carolinas and Louisiana.

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