Food processing, sick workers and the supply chain

Coronavirus

Foster Farms and Tyson plants in Washington have positive cases

KELSO, Wash. (KOIN) — More testing is underway at a Foster Farms chicken processing facility in Kelso after nine employees there tested positive for COVID-19. It’s just the latest in a string of Northwest food processors that have been hit hard by the coronavirus.

Cowlitz County health officials were busy on Monday testing another round of employees at the Kelso plant–115 people to be exact.

Over the weekend, both Foster Farms and Cowlitz County disclosed that after three workers reported testing positive for the virus, with two more employees later testing positive as well, the county health department stepped in to help facilitate more widespread testing at the plant. Last week, 77 employees were tested. Of that population, four tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the total number of positive cases at the Kelso facility to nine. Six of the 77 tests were still pending.

“To know you’re coming face to face with something that has the potential of killing you or your family members, and then still going and doing your job — it’s a stressful situation,” said Dan Clay of the Local 555 United, Food and Commercial Workers Union.

Continuing Coverage: Coronavirus

What happened at that Washington Foster Farms plant is playing out at other food processing facilities in the Northwest and across the nation. A Tyson Foods beef processing plant near Pasco halted all production Sunday after facility employees started getting sick. A total of 123 people at that plant have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to Benton and Walla Walla County Health Departments, and 1,500 more workers are currently being tested.

In a full-page ad in the Washington Post on Monday, Tyson’s chairman said the nation’s food supply is breaking. Titled “A Delicate Balance,” it said, “As pork, beef, and chicken plants are being forced to close, even for short periods of time, millions of pounds of meat will disappear from the supply chain.”

Tyson has had to temporarily close other plants around the nation and the company is making big changes in an effort to protect its workers and reopen facilities.

Washington state officials maintain the chain is not broken.

“The food supply chain in Washington state remains in tact and operational,” said Chris McGann of the Washington State Department of Agriculture. “We may see some products that are unavailable at certain stores at certain times, and we may see products that are unavailable for longer periods of time.

Keeping processing plants in operation is the key to keeping food in our stores, and companies including Foster Farms and Tyson said they are pulling out all the stops when it comes to worker safety. Foster Farms officials said the company is working closely with state and local health departments and that worker safety is their top priority right now.

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