- Tyson will reopen its pork processing plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa today, according to a company statement. The plant was shut down two weeks ago, after more than two dozen workers tested positive for COVID-19. Operations at the plant, which has about 1,400 employees and produces pork products for retail and foodservice, are restarting on a limited basis, the company said.
- About 200 cases of COVID-19 — including two that were fatal — are thought to have stemmed from the plant, according to the Des Moines Register.
- All employees at the reopened Tyson plant have been tested for coronavirus, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds told the Des Moines Register. The company says it has been proactive in taking measures to slow the spread of coronavirus in its factories, including requiring protective facial coverings, installing about 150 infrared devices to take employee temperatures as they walk into facilities and encouraging social distancing by installing dividers and creating more break space.
Meat processing plants have become hotspots for coronavirus transmission. While the industry is deemed essential and workers have continued to do their jobs, COVID-19 infections have shut down several plants in the last several weeks. So far in April, at least 13 meat processing plants in the U.S. and Canada have curtailed operations because of employee outbreaks, according to Food Dive records.
Tyson's Columbus Junction plant is the first large plant to come back online after an extended shutdown. This plant was initially only planned to be shut down for a week, according to The Wall Street Journal. It's not clear what specific measures the company has taken to discourage transmission at this plant, though Tyson Foods President Dean Banks said in the statement that the company has been active in creating an environment where the virus is less likely to spread.
“Our first priority is protecting our team members while they fulfill their critical mission of feeding families across the country during this challenging time,” Banks said in the statement. “We plan to increase production at Columbus Junction gradually, with the safety of our team members top of mind.”
While worker safety is important, it's vital to consumers and the meat industry for processing plants to be up and running. A New York Times article compared slaughterhouses and processing plants to airport hubs, with each handling heavy volumes of the nation's meat products. And because they all do so much, each individual plant has an outsized responsibility to keep America fed. An analyst told the Times that a little more than 50 plants are responsible for 98% of beef slaughtering and processing in the nation.
Tyson's Columbus Junction plant was one of the first meat facilities to close because of coronavirus, and there's no track record of how this kind of reopening has gone in the United States. The two-week halt in operations — the same length of time that doctors recommend people with mild cases of COVID-19 or who may have been exposed to the virus to self-quarantine — has given time for the virus to make itself evident in employees, as well as for some of those who have been sick to recover.
The two-week break has also put a hold on person-to-person transmission of the virus at the plant. In places like meat processing plants, where people work in close quarters, experts have said it is difficult to stop an outbreak once it has started. However, Tyson is helping by keeping employees apart and providing time for any remnants of the virus present in the plant to become inactive.
With so many other factories and processing plants shut down because of COVID-19 outbreaks, all of the industry's eyes are on Tyson. If workers stay healthy, then the meat processing giant may have found a winning strategy against the coronavirus pandemic. However, outside of factories, the virus is continuing to spread in the general population. There is no guarantee it won't be brought back into the factory as it opens its doors. According to data from Johns Hopkins University, the U.S. had nearly 788,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 on April 21. Data available on Google showed that Iowa had its largest spike ever in confirmed cases on April 19, reporting 389 that day.
And while panicked shopping from consumers stocking up their pantries has slowed, market tracking groups indicate consumers are still buying more meat than before. According to Nielsen statistics emailed to Food Dive, from mid-March to mid-April, fresh meat sales were up 57.3% compared to 2019.
After Smithfield shut down its massive Sioux Falls, South Dakota processing plant last week — a plant that is responsible by itself for 5% of all pork products in the United States — company President and CEO Kenneth Sullivan said that the nation was being pushed "perilously close to the edge" of the meat supply. Tyson's Columbus Junction plant reopening will serve as a model of how well the industry can get away from that edge.