FILE PHOTO: A Tyson Foods pork processing plant, temporarily closed due to an outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), is seen in Waterloo, Iowa, U.S., April 29, 2020. REUTERS/Brenna Norman
CHICAGO (Reuters) – More than 3,000 U.S. meatpacking workers have tested positive for COVID-19 and at least 44 workers have died, the country’s largest meatpacking union said on Thursday, reflecting an increasing toll on plant employees.
Meat processors like Tyson Foods Inc, WH Group’s Smithfield Foods and JBS USA temporarily closed about 20 slaughterhouses last month as workers fell ill with the new coronavirus, leading to shortages of certain products in grocery stores.
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union called on the companies and the Trump administration to do more to protect workers from the disease. The union reported 35 worker deaths in meatpacking as of May 12.
President Donald Trump on April 28 ordered meat-processing plants to stay open to protect the country’s food supply, despite concerns about coronavirus outbreaks. Production remains slower than normal because of increased absenteeism and social distancing among employees.
“Too many workers are being sent back into meatpacking plants without adequate protections in place, reigniting more outbreaks in the plants and our communities,” said Nick Nemec, a South Dakota farmer who is part of a group working with the union.
An Iowa state official on Thursday said 555 employees at a Tyson Foods pork plant in Storm Lake tested positive for the new coronavirus, about 22% of the facility’s workforce.
Tyson Foods said it has been working with local health officials and conducted large-scale COVID-19 testing in Storm Lake. The company has implemented safety measures to protect employees like requiring them to wear masks and installing physical barriers in lunchrooms.
Reporting by Tom Polansek in Chicago; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Matthew Lewis