Posted on April 22, 2020

South Dakota Pork Plant With One of Biggest COVID-19 Clusters in Us Blames Immigrant Workers

Ariel Zilber, Daily Mail, April 21, 2020

A meat-processing company which shut down a South Dakota plant after more than 700 employees became infected with COVID-19 said the outbreak was due to the factory’s ‘large immigrant population’.

Smithfield Foods blamed the migrant workers’ ‘living circumstances’ that are ‘different than they are with your traditional American family.’

The company said the indefinite closure of the pork plant in Sioux Falls disrupted its supply chain, forcing the closure of a facility in Martin City, Missouri. Smithfield also shuttered a plant in Cudahy, Wisconsin, after employees tested positive for the virus.

South Dakota’s governor said the temporary closure of the plant that produces about 5 per cent of the US pork supply has already been ‘devastating’ for regional producers.

A spokesperson for the company told BuzzFeed News on Monday that it is hard to know ‘what could have been done differently’ given the plant’s ‘large immigration population.’

‘Living circumstances in certain cultures are different than they are with your traditional American family,’ the spokesperson said.

South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem told Fox News last week that ’99 per cent’ of the infections ‘wasn’t happening inside the facility’ but rather inside workers’ homes ‘because a lot of these folks who work at this plant live in the same community, the same buildings, sometimes in the same apartments.’

BuzzFeed reports that the company did little to inform or protect workers from the outbreak after the initial infections were first reported in late March.

While the plant posted safety notices and flyers on bulletin boards and doors telling people that they should stay home if they feel sick, those notices were in English, according to employees.

Many of the 3,700 workers at the plant have limited understanding of English, and the plant has in the past taken measures to translate notices into as many as five languages when it wanted to communicate a message to them.

The company’s failure to alert the entire workforce to the outbreak left hundreds of employees vulnerable to getting infected, employees told BuzzFeed. has reached out to Smithfield Foods for comment.

The company denied to BuzzFeed that its policies led to the outbreak among the employees.

A company spokesperson told BuzzFeed that the employees were regularly told to adhere to safety protocols and to routinely wash their hands as early as February.

The company also said that it has been negatively impacted by the lack of personal protective equipment, a shortage that needed to be addressed by the federal government.

According to BuzzFeed, even after the first COVID-19 cases were being reported, the company kept telling its workers to report to work.

On April 1, the plant offered employees a free lunch in its cafeteria, where all employees had to pass through even after they were exposed to the virus.

Two weeks after the first confirmed case and as the outbreak began to grow among the workforce, the company finally acted on April 6, when it instituted mandatory temperature checks and shut down at least one floor ‘for cleaning and sanitation.’

In total, it took Smithfield 18 days after the first case of COVID-19 among its employees to pause operations on all of its floors for 48 hours to deep-clean the plant.

The company also installed cardboard dividers at workstations and plexiglass shields on cafeteria tables.

But by then the outbreak was in full swing. A total of 238 workers had tested positive for COVID-19.

One employee, Michael Bul Gayo Gatluak, a 22-year-old immigrant from South Sudan, told BuzzFeed he tested positive for coronavirus on April 13.

He said he works in the hog kill department on the sixth floor where he stands ‘really, really close’ to other employees along the production line.

‘With how we work on the line, I would say I got sick because of them not taking safety measures,’ Gatluak told BuzzFeed News.

‘When they had their first case, I don’t think they acted accordingly.’

More than 11 meat packing and processing plants have now been closed in North America because of the impact of coronavirus, raising serious concerns about the supply chain in the US and its ability to keep shelves stocked.

According to Smithfield, the plant accounts for 4 to 5 percent of the country’s pork production.

It supplies nearly 130 million servings of food per week, or about 18 million servings per day.

‘The closure of this facility, combined with a growing list of other protein plants that have shuttered across our industry, is pushing our country perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply,’ the meat processor’s CEO Kenneth Sullivan said in a statement on Sunday.

‘It is impossible to keep our grocery stores stocked if our plants are not running. These facility closures will also have severe, perhaps disastrous, repercussions for many in the supply chain.’

Sullivan said Smithfield had been operating during the coronavirus crisis because it wanted to sustain the nation’s food supply.

‘We believe it is our obligation to help feed the country, now more than ever. We have a stark choice as a nation: we are either going to produce food or not, even in the face of COVID-19,’ he said.

Smithfield announced a three-day closure last week so it could sanitize the plant and install physical barriers to enhance social distancing. But on Sunday, it announced the plant’s indefinite closure.

There has been no evidence that the coronavirus is being transmitted through food or its packaging, according to the Department of Agriculture.

The plant also employs 3,700 people who will now be out of work due to the plant’s closure, and many of those employees have been infected with the virus.

The announcement came a day after Noem and Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken wrote to Smithfield and urged the company to suspend operations for 14 days so that its workers could self-isolate and the plant could be disinfected.

Speaking during a news conference on Saturday, Governor Noem said that Smithfield employees accounted for more than half of the active cases of the coronavirus in the state.

Of the roughly 1,635 active cases in South Dakota, about 725 of them are employees of the plant.

She said that the mayor and herself spoke to Smithfield to recommend that the company suspends operations for at least two weeks.

Maggie Seidel, Noem’s senior advisor and policy director, said in an emailed statement Sunday that science and data support a 14-day closure to slow the spread of the virus in the community.

‘Obviously, the situation is dynamic and changing by the day. The industry (like the country) needs to fight its way through this situation – and it will – and make adjustments as it changes. As a critical infrastructure industry in our nation’s food supply, the Governor is committed to working with them to get through this,’ Seidel wrote.

Some activity will be maintained in the plant on Tuesday to process the inventory, Smithfield said, as it prepares for a full shut-down. It said that it would compensate employees for the following two weeks.

Other meat processing plants across the country have also shut down due to sick employees, including processors in Iowa and Pennsylvania.

Tyson, another of the world’s largest meat processors, has suspended its operations at one of its plants in Columbus Junction, Iowa, after over 20 of its workers contracted Covid-19.

The company said it would re-direct its livestock that was due at the plant in Columbus Junction to other plans to reduce the impact on supply.

Another key meat processor, JBS USA, ceased its operations for two weeks at its beef plant in Sounderton, Pennsylvania, and plans to re-open on April 16.

Several members of the plant’s management team could not go into work due to experiencing flu-like symptoms, leading to the decision to close the plant.

Another Pennsylvania plant in Hazleton has also paused its operations where 900 people usually work. 

Speaking to CNN Business, Jon Nash, North America lead for Cargill Protein said: ‘This will allow us to minimize the impact of COVID-19 and continue [to] follow health department guidelines.’

South Dakota has seen seven deaths resulting from the virus so far.

The United States of America has now seen 779,482 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, and 41,449 deaths.