By Greg Barnes
Additional contributions by Enlace Latino NC staff
It didn’t take long for the coronavirus to sweep through a Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
On March 26, the plant announced its first case of COVID-19. By April 13, more than 300 workers had tested positive. Today the plant is considered the largest coronavirus hot spot in the nation with nearly 900 cases linked directly to Smithfield Foods.
Fourteen hundred miles away in Tar Heel, North Carolina, it was reported over the weekend that an employee at the nation’s largest hog-slaughtering plant had tested positive for the coronavirus.
Smithfield won’t confirm that case or say whether other employees have since tested positive. It’s not saying much of anything now, other than to reiterate the many steps the company has taken in the last couple of weeks in an effort to protect its employees and keep them working.
In North Carolina, the outbreak of the virus hasn’t been confined only to Smithfield. The state announced in a news release Tuesday that five hog and poultry processing plants have confirmed two or more cases of the virus; in Bladen, Lee, Chatham, Duplin and Robeson counties. The state considers two or more cases at a plant an outbreak.
The state Department of Health and Human Services, which issued the news release, declined in a subsequent email to name the plants with outbreaks or how many cases each plant has reported. The department would say only that 118 people have tested positive for the coronavirus at the five plants.
In response to the outbreak, state health and agricultural officials have developed interim guidelines in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus in the state’s 200 processing plants. The new guidelines are in addition to those already established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the news release said.
Workers aren’t the only ones threatened
Only time will tell if the new guidelines can stop the virus’ spread in the processing plants. But if the Smithfield plant in South Dakota provides any clues, it may already be too late.
At a Mountaire Farms chicken processing plant in Siler City, employees were notified on April 13 that three of their co-workers had tested positive for COVID-19.
Ilana Dubester, an advocate for Hispanic workers at Mountaire, said the plant’s spokesman Mark Reif told her Saturday that 11 employees had tested positive.
Neither Mountaire nor the Chatham County Health Department would confirm that number or say how many employees have contracted the virus since then. They said it was a matter of protecting employees’ privacy rights. According to state records, Chatham County had 131 confirmed cases of the virus on Tuesday, up from 127 the day before.
The virus is not only threatening workers at the processing plants, if its spread is not contained it could eventually threaten the nation’s supply of meat and poultry, said Rob Handfield, a distinguished professor of operations and supply chain management at N.C. State University.
The coronavirus could also threaten the livelihoods of North Carolina’s hog farmers, many of whom were facing an unsteady financial future long before the pandemic.
Mountaire’s response to the outbreak
Catherine Bassett, director of communications at Mountaire’s Delaware headquarters, said in an email that the company notified its Siler City plant employees about its first worker testing positive for the coronavirus the same day.
Dubester disputes that. She is the founder and executive director of El Vinculo Hispano, which translates in English to The Hispanic Liaison, a 25-year old nonprofit organization that seeks to give Hispanics a voice in their community.
Dubester said Reif, the plant’s spokesman, told her that Mountaire knew about the first case at least four weeks before announcing on April 13 that three employees had tested positive. Reif didn’t acknowledge whether that was true or not, instead kicking the question up to Bassett. Dubester said Reif told her he didn’t know about the positive cases before Mountaire told the workers.
Before announcing the coronavirus cases, Dubester and a Mountaire employee who asked not to be named, alleged the company did little to protect its workers against the virus.
“When this pandemic started, Mountaire was doing nothing. They just started giving employees face masks/shields & putting up glass between people about 2 weeks ago,” the worker told N.C. Health News through Facebook’s messenger service. “The distance between people on the lines is literally elbow to elbow. The risk of the virus spreading in the company is extremely high because of this.”
The employee, who asked not to be named out of fear that she could lose her job, said she works on a deboning production line. She said about half of the workers in her department have stopped showing up regularly to work, herself included, out of concern that they could get the virus.
“It’s scary,” she said. “I’m putting my life at risk going to work and Mountaire is only worried about profit from their chicken.”
Dubester and the employee acknowledge that Mountaire, which opened its $170 million Chatham County plant exactly a year ago, has taken many strides to improve the safety of its workers since shortly before disclosing the cases of COVID-19.
They just don’t think it came soon enough.
“When the outbreak started and now it is spreading it became really obvious that what they were doing wasn’t enough,” Dubester said.
Among other protective measures, Mountaire now conducts temperature checks on all employees, provides face masks or shields, added social distancing requirements on its lines, improved disinfection, added hand sanitizer stations, relaxed attendance policies and gave employees a pay raise as a way to thank them during these difficult times.
A second worker, who also asked not to be named, said she appreciates the efforts Mountaire has taken to make the plant safer. Among the precautions in place now, she said, Mountaire orders people to wear masks at all times and has placed plastic dividers between workers on the lines.
“Our company is doing the most they can to keep us safe and we ourselves are doing the best job we can to be safe as well,’’ said the woman, who is single, from Mexico and has worked at the plant since it opened last year.
But she said many workers remain fearful of the virus.
“People aren’t coming to work nearly as much, and you can tell because the parking lot used to be filled but now it’s half empty most of the time,” she said.
She thinks the plant should tell workers when someone tests positive for the virus.
“I think we deserve the right to know if someone has it and who the person is because we all work in close proximity with one another,” she said. “It helps us to know because we want to be able to prevent it.”
Those same types of precautions made by Mountaire, and perhaps more, have been implemented by Smithfield at all of its processing plants, said Andre Barnett, secretary/treasurer of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 1208.
Barnett praised Smithfield’s response to the pandemic.
“They have made every effort to do whatever the CDC recommends, and they have gone above and beyond to ensure the safety of their employees at the Tar Heel facility and in every other facility throughout the United States,” Barnett said.
He took a swipe at some of the plant’s workers.
But he said there is a reason the plant’s workers are deemed essential. They help provide food for the table.
North Carolina processes about 10 percent of the country’s pork supply, said Kelly Zering, a professor and extension specialist at N.C. State University.
“Lost capacity here would have national impacts on pork products available to consumers and the prices of remaining supplies,” Zering said.
Smithfield has had to shut down two of its other plants, in Wisconsin and Missouri, that received products from the Sioux Falls plant. Other meat-processing plants have also closed across the country. Another big pork processor, JBS in Minnesota, announced Monday that it was shutting down because of the coronavirus.
Smithfield’s operations continue
At this point, Smithfield’s operations at its Tar Heel Plant continue relatively unabated. The plant still employs about 4,400 workers and processes up to 35,000 hogs a day, nearly twice as many as in Sioux Falls.
But the estimated 2,300 hog farmers in North Carolina are nervous. They are well aware of what is happening in South Dakota and are hoping not to meet the same fate.
“I am concerned about it and I get more concerned as time goes on,” said Chad Herring, a Mt. Olive hog farmer and executive director of N.C. Farm Families. “You see what happened to the South Dakota plant. I’m trying to be optimistic about things. I think we can get back going and can get back to normal soon.”
These days, normal hasn’t been exactly rosy for North Carolina’s hog farmers, though. Long before the pandemic, the farmers had been under economic assault from tariffs, high feed costs, low pork prices and an avalanche of lawsuits alleging hog farms have upended their neighbors’ ways of life. Smithfield has lost all five lawsuits that have been filed, resulting in verdicts totaling in the hundreds of millions of dollars. More lawsuits wait in the wings.
Most of the state’s hog farms are concentrated in three eastern North Carolina counties, Duplin, Sampson and Bladen. According to a recent N.C. State study, pig production and pork processing account for 44 percent of the jobs in Bladen County and 23 percent in Sampson County.
The industry as a whole generates more than $10 billion in economic output for the state and creates more than 44,000 jobs, the study shows.
South Dakota’s sobering situation
It’s hard to fathom what might happen if the coronavirus forces Smithfield to shut down its Tar Heel plant for an extended period of time.
But the shutdown of the company’s South Dakota plant offers some clues.
It’s been 10 days since that plant closed, putting workers out of jobs and threatening to wreak economic havoc on the state’s independent hog farmers, about 550 of whom are under contract with Smithfield Foods. Smithfield, South Dakota’s governor and the CDC are working to negotiate an agreement on how the plant could reopen. It sounded Tuesday as if the agreement was close to being reached.
With the slaughterhouse closed, farmers have few if any options to take their hogs to market. If the plant doesn’t reopen soon, some farmers may have to start killing their hogs, said Glenn Muller, executive director of the South Dakota Pork Producers Council.
“That’s a last-case resort, and I think every day we get closer to that point,” Muller said on Monday. “We’re hoping for a bright spot, some agreement that can be made… but every day becomes a little more critical.”
Zering, the N.C. State professor, said he is not aware of any hogs in the U.S. having to be euthanized. But he understands how it could happen.
“Since pigs are 5 to 6 months old when they go to market and are conceived 9 to 10 months before they go to market, it is difficult in the short term to reduce the number of pigs reaching market age,” Zering said in an email.
Now, in both North Carolina and South Dakota, hog farmers are worried about bankruptcy.
“It’s a tremendous financial and emotional strain on our producers right at this point in time and we’re very concerned about their financial and mental well-being,” Muller said.
This story was reported with help from Enlace Latino NC an independent nonprofit news organization publishing in Spanish that covers politics, government, immigration, and community affairs in North Carolina.