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Tyson Foods idling its largest pork plant amid Iowa outbreak

The plant employs nearly 3,000 workers and can process about 19,500 hogs per day, about 4% of the U.S. pork processing capacity.

Posted: Apr 22, 2020 8:55 AM
Updated: Apr 22, 2020 3:01 PM

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Tyson Foods suspended operations Wednesday at an Iowa plant that is critical to the nation's pork supply but was blamed for fueling a coronavirus outbreak in the community.

The Arkansas-based company said the closure of the plant in Waterloo would deny a vital market to hog farmers and further disrupt U.S. meat supply. Tyson had kept the facility, its largest pork plant, open in recent days over the objections of alarmed local officials.

The plant can process 19,500 hogs per day, accounting for 3.9% of U.S. pork processing capacity, according to the National Pork Board.

More than 180 infections have been linked to the plant and officials expect that number to dramatically rise. Testing of its 2,800 workers is expected to begin Friday. Cases and hospitalizations in Black Hawk County have skyrocketed in recent days and local officials say the plant is the largest source of infections.

In addition to those who have tested positive for the virus, hundreds of workers were staying home out of fear, and the plant had been running at reduced production levels.

Employers have struggled to contain the virus in meatpacking plants, where workers toil side by side on production lines and often share crowded locker rooms, cafeterias and rides to work. While plants have added safety measures, public health experts say social distancing is virtually impossible.

Several facilities have temporarily closed due to virus outbreaks, including a Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and a JBS USA plant in Worthington, Minnesota. Others have stayed open or resumed production after pauses for worker testing and cleaning.

Tyson Fresh Meats president Steve Stouffer said the closure in Iowa was driven by “the combination of worker absenteeism, COVID-19 cases and community concerns.” He warned of “significant ramifications" for the farmers, distributors and grocers in the supply chain.

Tyson said workers would be compensated during the shutdown and that the timing of reopening would depend on several factors, including testing.

The Black Hawk County Board of Health requested Tuesday that Tyson or Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds temporarily close the plant. The board warned that its continued operation would exacerbate the spread of the virus in the county.

A 65-year-old employee in the plant's laundry department died Sunday after contracting the virus, the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier reported.

Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart and local officials had called for a shutdown, saying Tyson was putting its workforce in danger. Iowa’s worker safety agency said Tuesday that was investigating the plant.

The governor blocked local authorities from closing the plant in an April 16 order that banned social gatherings in northeastern Iowa. It granted the exclusive power to the Iowa Department of Public Health to shut down businesses over coronavirus concerns.

The governor and the department had been working with Tyson to keep the plant open.

Reynolds argued that the economic disruption caused by plant closures outweighed the health risks, warning that farmers would potentially have to euthanize their pigs. She said that “people are gonna get" the virus in large workplaces but most will experience mild or no symptoms.

Lawmakers said an earlier closure would have better protected public health and been less harmful economically. “My concern is the impact this has had because we didn’t act soon enough," said Democratic Rep. Ras Smith of Waterloo.

The governor didn't respond directly when asked Wednesday if the state should have intervened. She defended her overall response to the crisis but said, “There’s always more we could have done.”

Tyson resumed operations Tuesday at its pork plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa, which had been shut down for two weeks after an outbreak infected hundreds and killed two workers.

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 446380

Reported Deaths: 5995
CountyCasesDeaths
Hennepin927471474
Ramsey39820736
Dakota32876338
Anoka30877363
Washington20066227
Stearns17813187
St. Louis13609241
Scott1191796
Wright11570104
Olmsted1041375
Sherburne818965
Carver692436
Clay650280
Rice604168
Kandiyohi553471
Blue Earth538933
Crow Wing481374
Otter Tail454466
Chisago450832
Benton418685
Winona387246
Douglas373466
Nobles368746
Mower363329
Goodhue345358
Polk327956
McLeod324245
Morrison311144
Beltrami309447
Lyon300636
Becker284139
Itasca284043
Isanti281641
Carlton278543
Steele27229
Pine266013
Freeborn243420
Todd231630
Nicollet223836
Brown214534
Mille Lacs213646
Le Sueur208815
Cass207323
Meeker199233
Waseca188916
Wabasha16953
Martin169326
Roseau165416
Hubbard149238
Redwood139527
Renville137139
Houston135613
Dodge13384
Chippewa130932
Cottonwood126818
Fillmore12245
Wadena119616
Rock109712
Sibley10837
Aitkin107633
Watonwan10638
Faribault104616
Pennington98815
Kanabec97418
Pipestone93923
Yellow Medicine93514
Murray8785
Jackson85210
Swift83118
Pope7375
Marshall70315
Stevens6978
Clearwater68514
Lac qui Parle65716
Lake63215
Wilkin6229
Koochiching59310
Lincoln4821
Big Stone4553
Unassigned43668
Grant4298
Norman4238
Mahnomen4107
Kittson37219
Red Lake3164
Traverse2503
Lake of the Woods1901
Cook1140

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 303464

Reported Deaths: 4269
CountyCasesDeaths
Polk45396448
Linn17695274
Scott15387163
Black Hawk13659236
Woodbury12953175
Johnson1204749
Dubuque11312150
Pottawattamie8942112
Dallas882171
Story863834
Webster467571
Cerro Gordo463568
Sioux453756
Clinton448861
Warren438838
Marshall425761
Buena Vista391929
Muscatine386777
Des Moines380941
Plymouth348968
Wapello341698
Jasper320458
Lee314430
Marion302152
Jones270449
Henry263430
Carroll253434
Bremer242248
Crawford228522
Boone216417
Washington214531
Benton208844
Jackson191131
Mahaska190736
Tama185857
Dickinson184226
Delaware172336
Kossuth171343
Clay166019
Wright163024
Fayette160022
Buchanan158323
Hamilton157929
Winneshiek155119
Harrison154762
Hardin154229
Cedar151819
Clayton150748
Butler146824
Page143715
Cherokee138227
Floyd138036
Mills136016
Lyon133832
Poweshiek132424
Hancock129024
Allamakee126927
Iowa123922
Calhoun12209
Grundy120226
Jefferson119524
Madison11899
Winnebago118529
Mitchell115734
Louisa114330
Cass112641
Chickasaw110612
Sac110615
Emmet110331
Appanoose109838
Union108122
Humboldt104219
Guthrie102424
Franklin101618
Shelby101426
Unassigned9160
Palo Alto9019
Keokuk84325
Montgomery84022
Howard82819
Monroe80818
Clarke7847
Pocahontas77211
Ida74030
Davis68921
Greene6887
Adair68620
Lucas6488
Osceola6349
Monona63316
Worth5993
Taylor5919
Fremont5046
Van Buren49412
Decatur4804
Ringgold4269
Wayne41421
Audubon4118
Adams2953
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