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.
Associated Press writer David Pitt in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.