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Manufacturing Industry Updates

Meatpackers Say the Worst of the Virus is Behind Them. Health Experts Disagree

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Despite the health and safety protocols taken in food production plants, public health experts are concerned about a possible resurgence of COVID-19. (iStock/RGtimeline)

While the threat of a third wave of COVID-19 continues to make headlines and some states have even begun adding back restrictions as positivity rates rise, meatpackers are a bit more optimistic.

JBS CEO Andre Nogueira recently told The Wall Street Journal during its Global Food Forum that he is “pretty confident we are not going to have the size of the disruption we saw in April and May.” In March and April, tens of thousands of workers became infected with the virus that forced JBS, Tyson Foods, Cargill and others to temporarily close. 

As a result, JBS and other major meat companies installed automated temperature checkpoints, distributed safety gear to plant workers and installed partitions between some workstations to detect COVID-19 symptoms and prevent its spread in plants. 

“I would imagine most of the industry is doing what we’re doing and that is really pushing the flu shots right now,” Jim Perdue, chairman of Perdue Farms told Fox News. “Our wellness centers are giving these out and encouraging people to get them. We’re continuing the protocols on social distancing and masks as we were during the height of the pandemic. Half a dozen of our harvest plants did 100% [COVID-19] testing.”

Despite the health and safety protocols taken, public health experts are concerned about a possible resurgence of COVID-19 in food production plants this fall, according to the Food & Environment Reporting Network (FERN). Experts suggest more comprehensive testing, physical distancing and better data reporting are key to keeping the virus in check. 

For the past six months, FERN has been counting COVID-19 outbreaks, cases and deaths in the food system. It has counted more than 71,000 worker cases and 321 deaths linked to nearly 1,400 COVID-19 outbreaks at meat and food plants and on farms. 

Numbers peaked in May with about 17,500 new infections and then declined over the summer with more than 15,000 added in July and about 5,000 added in August. FERN is noticing new infections may rise again as it added more than 6,000 cases to its database in September, with more than half coming in the final week of the month. 

“If testing isn’t readily available and encouraged, it’s probably not going to happen,” Dr. Christine Petersen, director of the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the University of Iowa told FERN. “Something that was already complicated is about to become more complicated.”

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