Order to open meat plants brings anxiety to one town where 90% of COVID-19 cases are tied to Tyson

Donnelle Eller and Barbara Rodriguez
Des Moines Register

DES MOINES, Iowa – Local officials worry that President Donald Trump's executive order requiring meatpacking plants to remain open could threaten the health of 2,800 workers at the Tyson plant that closed last week because of a COVID-19 outbreak.

But pork producers say the president's action provides "hope and relief" for farmers who face destroying thousands of pigs backed up on farms as the novel coronavirus has both slowed and closed meatpacking processing plants across the country.

"Farmers are making decisions that are devastating to them. These producers would give you the pigs" rather than have them destroyed and the food not go to consumers, said Howard "A.V." Roth, president of the National Pork Producers Council.

Trump addressed threats of possible meat shortages on April 28 by signing an executive order that said meat processing plants are part of the nation's critical infrastructure and must remain open to ensure a "continued supply of protein for Americans."

The conflict between the president, meat processors and local officials has been brewing for weeks, as the number of positive virus tests among meatpacking employees has shot up. As the workers have gotten sick, companies have shut down massive plants, raising supply chain fears amid health fears in communities.

"We've tried to be a partner throughout this entire COVID pandemic working with our processing plants, because it is critical infrastructure and they are essential workers and we need to make sure that we can keep them up and running to keep the nation's food supply flowing," said Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican.

Iowa state Rep. Ras Smith, a Democrat who represents parts of Black Hawk County, which houses the massive Tyson processing plant in Waterloo, said on April 29 that he needs more details from the White House about how such a reopening will work.

Smith said his priority is the health and safety of the Tyson workers, and that means demanding more stringent oversight and requirements of meatpacking plants.

Smith noted it had only been a week since the Tyson plant in Waterloo, Iowa, closed, and COVID-19 testing for employees there is not complete. He said the White House needs a robust, continuous testing infrastructure in place for workers and their families.

Smith said the federal order to reopen came as a surprise.

“It seems bizarre to me and extremely negligent,” he said.

Trump's order also seeks to shield meat companies from legal liability if they are sued by employees who contract COVID-19 while on the job.

"With the president's actions, we might end up in the same place all over again, with more workers sick and a larger disruption to the food chain," said Chris Schwartz, a Black Hawk County supervisor.

About 90% of the 1,326 people testing positive for COVID-19 in Black Hawk County, Iowa are tied to the Tyson pork processing plant, health officials have said. State data, which lags local reporting, show 1,082 positive cases in Black Hawk, the most in an Iowa county as of April 29. Thirteen people in the county have died from the novel coronavirus.

Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart said he hopes Tyson and other companies that have closed plants "aren't forced to open" before they've put the necessary safety precautions in place to protect workers.

Other Iowa plants have also struggled with workers getting sick from the coronavirus. As of late last week, a JBS pork processing plant had 34 employees test positive in Marshalltown; Prestage Foods said it had 25 people who tested positive for COVID-19.

Mike Naig, Iowa’s agriculture secretary, said the state’s increased testing, especially of meatpacking plant workers, will help give employees confidence that they can safely return.

Naig said some Iowa pork producers are euthanizing pigs, since the state has lost processing for about 50,000 pigs a day. “Every day we move closer to widespread depopulation, given that disruption,” said Naig, who along with other Republicans have asked the federal government to provide financial assistance to producers who must destroy animals.

State Rep. Timi Brown-Powers, a Democrat from Waterloo, is also a health care worker who is overseeing a COVID-19 testing clinic in town.

Brown-Powers filed a complaint several weeks ago, along with Smith, to the Iowa division of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration regarding worker safety at the Tyson plant. The lawmakers alleged, on behalf of Tyson workers, that the company failed to protect its employees from exposure to the virus.

Brown-Powers said any potential reopening right now makes her nervous.

“I don't think we have a healthy enough workforce to even go out there to work,” she said of the plant. “If we open up right now … and don't have everything in order, then those folks that do get pushed back in, will likely get sick because it's so active in our community. And then we'll start the process all over again.”

A big issue for Tyson and other companies, Hart said, will be how many employees can return to work after COVID-19 has swept through plants.

Tyson officials warned on April 26 that the country faces a meat shortage as plants close, even temporarily, with potentially “millions of pounds of meat” disappearing from the supply chain.

Tyson said on April 29 that employee safety remains its top priority as it works with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on its "next steps."

The federal agency will provide details on how the Trump order will be implemented, said North American Meat Institute, a lobbying group that represents large meat processing companies. The Center for Disease Control and U.S. Department of Labor also issued guidance for keeping meat processing workers safe over the weekend.

Tyson officials said on April 29 they haven't determined when the Waterloo plant might reopen. The Arkansas company reopened its Columbus Junction pork processing plant last week after closing it for nearly three weeks.

Tyson officials said they added more sophisticated temperature screening equipment, erected additional barriers between work stations, and provided more space in break rooms, among other safety efforts.

Analysts say about 33% of the U.S. meatpacking capacity is gone as workers have become sick with COVID-19. In Iowa, pork producers have lost about 40% of the processing capacity, with a Smithfield plant closed in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and a JBS plant in Worthington, Minnesota, mostly shuttered. Both are just across the Iowa border.

JBS said on April 29 it partially reopened, allowing producers to bring pigs to be slaughtered. The carcasses will be rendered, sent to landfills, composted or buried. JBS said it can kill about 13,000 hogs a day, with about 20 workers working with state and federal veterinarians.

“While our focus is on getting the Worthington facility back to work on behalf of our team members producing food for the nation, we believe we have a responsibility to step up when our producer partners are in need,” said Bob Krebs, president of JBS USA Pork, in a statement.

Typically, the plant process about 20,000 pigs a day for food with about 2,000 workers.

Roth, a Wisconsin farmer, who was among those in the meat industry who talked with Trump on April 29, said farmers need the help.

"We're backed up with millions of pigs right now," said Roth, adding that some pork producers have told him they've begun euthanizing animals.

Roth said he faces that possibility soon with pigs he owns a partial interest in, that can no longer be sent a Smithfield plant in Monmouth, Illinois, which closed on April 24.

Jerome Amos, a Waterloo City Council member, said workers will return to the Tyson plant, regardless of how safe it is, because they need the paycheck. "They'll do what they have to do," Amos said.

Amos said workers' health is more important than meat supplies. "We could go without eating meat for a while," said Amos, who teaches machining at Hawkeye Community College. "And I eat meat."

Concern about Tyson's meatpacking plant in Waterloo, Iowa, is rising as Black Hawk County sees a spike in COVID-19 cases.