UPDATE: June 4, 2020: The story was updated to include Smithfield's response.
- At a Smithfield-owned Farmer John plant near Los Angeles, at least 153 employees have reportedly tested positive for coronavirus, roughly 10% of its workforce, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers union. The union is calling for the plant's "immediate closure."
- The UFCW Local 770 released a statement last week saying safety measures at the plant were insufficient. Animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals joined in the calls to shutter the plant late last week and brought its "Pandemic Pig" mascot in a convertible car for a drive-by protest at the facility.
- "Working conditions inside the plant are similar to what we are seeing nationwide in Smithfield plants," John Grant, president of UFCW Local 770, said in a release. "Workers are still too close together on the line, in the breakroom, the bathrooms and other such hubs."
As calls to shut down the Farmer John plant escalate over worker health concerns, Smithfield Foods hasn't caved to the rising pressure. But if the protests and calls from local authorities grow, Smithfield could change its tune.
This isn't the first plant at which Smithfield has faced calls for a closure and eventually complied. Hundreds of employees tested positive at its massive pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and the company only decided to shut it down after calls from the governor and mayor.
The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health is reportedly investigating the plant. Smithfield acquired the Farmer John brand, which produces Dodger Dogs and other pork products, from Hormel Foods as part of a 2016 transaction.
Smithfield told Food Dive in an emailed statement it has implemented the same safety protocols and protective measures across its more than 40 facilities, including Farmer John, such as boosting PPE, installing plexiglass barriers and offering free testing.
As coronavirus spread rapidly among workers in meat plants in April, Smithfield shut down several of its facilities as the company faced criticism from workers, unions and local government. CEO Kenneth Sullivan warned that the closures were "pushing our country perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply."
Other big meat companies echoed similar concerns about supply, so President Donald Trump issued an executive order designating meat processing plants as "critical infrastructure," using the Defense Production Act to try to keep them open during the pandemic. Some plants reopened shortly after, and many raised concerns the order would result in more sick workers.
During the pandemic, more than 30 meatpacking plants temporarily closed under pressure from local authorities and their own workforce. Slaughter capacity for pork and beef has declined by 30% to 40% as a result, according to USDA data. But after Trump's executive order was issued, the Labor Department and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration signaled the federal government would assert ultimate authority, saying "no part of the joint meat processing guidance should be construed to indicate that state and local authorities may direct a meat and poultry processing facility to close." That could give Smithfield reason to resist additional calls to close the Farmer John plant.
The plant is located in Vernon, California, a small city near Los Angeles that has had a coronavirus outbreak across its industrial buildings. Besides Farmer John, about eight other essential companies have reported infections as well, including four other meatpacking plants, a producer of baked goods, a green tea plant and a coffee processing factory, CBS Los Angeles reported.
Across the food industry, at least 76 workers have died and more than 20,000 have tested positive for coronavirus. Meat plants have particularly become hotspots for the virus since people often work shoulder-to-shoulder.
Even though Smithfield said it put in additional safety measures at its plants, UFCW 770 said workers at Farmer John have pushed the company for more safety standards, workplace protections and information about infections at the plant. The union said "information has been incomplete and safety measures insufficient."
"We need to feel safe on the job and we do not," Rina Chavarria, who works at the Farmer John plant, said in a release. "We work hard every day. Smithfield has not taken steps to make sure workers are protected and now so many of us are getting sick. We can’t go to the plant under these conditions."