South Dakota meatpacking plant to close for 3 days, as one of the nation’s top hotspots for COVID-19

Coronavirus

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — A Sioux Falls, South Dakota meatpacking plant quickly becoming one of the top hotspots for COVID-19 in the country is closing for three days, according to a statement from Smithfield Foods.

The company will stop operations on a large section of the plant on Saturday, and remain closed on Sunday and Monday, while essential employees clean the plant.

“Smithfield Foods is taking the utmost precautions and actions to ensure the health and wellbeing of our employees – with an even increased emphasis on our critical role in the ongoing supply of food to American families,” Smithfield CEO Kenneth M. Sullivan said in a statement. “Our Sioux Falls plant supplies nearly 130 million servings of food per week, or about 18 million servings per day, to our country. Our more than 40,000 U.S. team members, thousands of American family farmers and our many other supply chain partners are a crucial part of our nation’s response to COVID-19.”

On Wednesday, the South Dakota Department of Health confirmed more than 80 employees at Smithfield Foods have tested positive for COVID-19.

“We are able to do contact tracing with all the positive cases, so that work continues so that we can make sure people are taking precautions and so at this point we do not feel there is a risk to people outside of those impacted,” Secretary of Health Kim Malsam-Rysdon said.

United Food and Commercial Workers, the union representing employees at the plant, reported Wednesday the number of people with confirmed cases is higher — more than 120, according to the Associated Press.

“We applaud Smithfield’s decision to temporarily close the plant to push for an even safer work environment and will continue to push them to implement stringent safety measures at this plant and at every plant we represent,” the Union said in a statement Thursday.

This now makes the Sioux Falls plant just across the street from the city’s namesake and largest tourist attraction – Falls Park – one of the top hotspots in the country for COVID-19, according to data analyzed by the New York Times and KELOLAND News.

The department is doing “enhanced testing,” on workers. When asked in a Thursday afternoon media briefing if there was an updated case count, health officials refused give a new number.

Gov. Kristi Noem (R-SD) has been in contact with company leadership, according to senior advisor and policy director Maggie Seidel.

“The Governor is appreciative of the decisive action Smithfield is taking this morning to protect its critical workers during this difficult time,” Seidel said in a statement.

A full statement from Noem’s administration can be found lower in the story.

“We have really only found out about this heat of the virus in the past 48 to 72 hours,” Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken said during a Thursday morning briefing.

The mayor said it’s also a community issue for when those people go home. TenHaken said there are also communication issues with Napoli and Hispanic communities, who work at the plant.

The Smithfield pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., is seen Wednesday, April 8, 2020, where health officials reported more than 80 employees have confirmed cases of the coronavirus (AP Photo/Stephen Groves)

“We’ve been working to understand how they are communicating with employees, how they are helping employees check symptoms, check for potential signs, helping folks go home if needed or stay home if they are ill,” Malsam-Rysdon said on Wednesday. “They are looking at making sure the environment is cleaned, and cleaned more often than normal, as well as that employees have appropriate strategies in place to protect themselves.”

The plant in Sioux Falls processes fresh pork, bacon, deli meats, hot dogs, and smoked meats. It employs nearly 3,700 people in Sioux Falls, according to a 2018 media release from the company.

Smithfield purchased John Morrell & Co in Sioux Falls, SD, in 1995. The facility was built in 1909.

SD State Historical Society – Archives Department

As KELOLAND News has reported, over the years the company has talked about both expanding and closing its Sioux Falls meat packing plant. 

In fact, when South Dakota Governor George Mickelson died in a plane crash in 1993, he was returning from a trip to try to save the plant.

Smithfield is the country’s largest pork processor and hog producer. 

United Food and Commercial Workers has called on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue new safety protocols for several industries, including meatpacking.

“With the growing threat of the coronavirus, we are urging the CDC to issue new mandatory guidance that standardizes safety protocols for grocery stores, pharmacies, food processing and meatpacking facilities. Given the nature of the threat, the CDC must also provide new guidelines for physical distancing, enhanced cleaning, disinfecting and hygiene practices, personal protective equipment (PPE), and best practices for customers,” UFCW International President Marc Perrone said in a statement.

In Iowa, Tyson Foods said this week it has suspended operations at a major pork processing plant in the southeastern part of the state where more than two dozen workers have tested positive for the coronavirus.

“USDA is closely monitoring the situation with the Smithfield Food plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota,” a USDA spokesperson told KELOLAND News. “We are not aware of any reports at this time of human illnesses that suggest COVID-19 can be transmitted by food or food packaging. However, it is always important to follow good hygiene practices (i.e., wash hands and surfaces often, separate raw meat from other foods, cook to the right temperature, and refrigerate foods promptly) when handling or preparing foods.”

In addition, the USDA says its actively monitoring all agriculture commodity markets during the pandemic.

“The US food supply chain remains safe and secure and we are committed to ensuring America’s farmers, ranchers, and producers get through this pandemic. We are swiftly evaluating the authorities granted under the CARES Act and will leverage our programs to alleviate disruption as necessary,” the agency said in a statement.

The CDC has similar guidance on its website.

It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object, like a packaging container, that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.

In general, because of poor survivability of these coronaviruses on surfaces, there is likely very low risk of spread from food products or packaging.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Mayor Paul TenHaken says city leaders and the city health department are in close contact with officials at Smithfield Foods.

“We are on daily calls with them, and was actually just emailing with the plant manager last night. The CEO of Global Smithfield has been here as well to make sure the plant is taking the measures seriously,” Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken said to KELOLAND News on Wednesday.

The state says it’s also working with Smithfield Foods to make sure the plant is taking the proper steps to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Smithfield’s CEO previously posted a video statement about how the company is protecting its workers.

A local group is organizing a solidarity drive for the employees at Smithfield on Thursday night.

“We will be starting in Sioux Falls Park and drive along weber street,” the group Que Pasa Sioux Falls said in a media release. “3 days is not enough, employees should get tested, the facilities deep cleaned.”

Full statement from Smithfield CEO

“Smithfield Foods is taking the utmost precautions and actions to ensure the health and wellbeing of our employees – with an even increased emphasis on our critical role in the ongoing supply of food to American families. Our Sioux Falls plant supplies nearly 130 million servings of food per week, or about 18 million servings per day, to our country. Our more than 40,000 U.S. team members, thousands of American family farmers and our many other supply chain partners are a crucial part of our nation’s response to COVID-19.

As an industry and as a nation, it is imperative that we continue to operate our feed mills, farms, plants and distribution centers. Together with our peers and supply chain partners, which include millions of American crop and livestock farmers, we feed America. Not operating is not an option. People need to eat.

Our government has identified agriculture and food production as critical to the response to COVID-19. They have emphasized over and over again our special responsibility to maintain operations and normal work schedules. They have been explicit: shelter-in-place orders do not apply to us. The reason is obvious. Food is essential for survival and civil society. So, we must produce food for our communities and our countries. It’s our obligation and duty to our fellow citizens.

Kenneth M. Sullivan, president and chief executive officer, for Smithfield

In a statement, the company said, “Smithfield has instituted a series of stringent and detailed processes and protocols that follow the strict guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to effectively manage COVID-19 cases in its operations. These include mandatory 14-day COVID-19 related quarantines with pay as an uncompromising effort to protect its dedicated employees. The company has also relaxed attendance policies to eliminate any punitive effect for missing work due to COVID-19 diagnosis or quarantine. In addition, Smithfield is taking many measures to minimize its team members’ risks of contracting COVID-19. These include adding extra hand sanitizing stations, boosting personal protective equipment, continuing to stress the importance of personal hygiene, enhancing cleaning and disinfection, expanding employee health benefits, implementing thermal scanning, increasing social distancing, installing plexiglass and other physical barriers and restricting all nonessential visitors.”

“All these actions complement the extensive safety measures in place at all our locations and are on top of the extremely hygienic and sanitary environments maintained at all times in our industry for food safety and quality purposes. We’re also ensuring employees know how to protect themselves and others from COVID-19 and making certain that they know how COVID-19 spreads. We continue to actively monitor CDC guidance, as well as that of state and local health authorities, and are immediately taking all necessary actions to protect our employees

Kenneth M. Sullivan, president and chief executive officer, for Smithfield

Full statement from Noem administration

The Governor has been in close communication with Smithfield President and CEO Ken Sullivan over the last 24 hours.  The health and safety of the Smithfield employees and the protection of our food supply is paramount. 

Over the coming days, Smithfield will be taking additional steps to protect its workforce, especially those who are most vulnerable, against the spread of this virus.  The plant will undergo a temporary closure, expand its already rigorous cleaning and sanitation practices, add new physical barriers to promote further social distancing, and provide paid time off for employees with a COVID diagnosis or quarantine. 

As Mr. Sullivan outlined in his announcement this morning, this plant supplies nearly 130 million servings of food per week, or about 18 million servings per day, to our country.  As all South Dakotans know, we take pride in feeding America – from the farm through plants like these to our homes. 

The Governor is appreciative of the decisive action Smithfield is taking this morning to protect its critical workers during this difficult time.

Over the coming weeks, the South Dakota Department of Health will be working closely with Smithfield leadership and plant management to help ensure all CDC guidelines are followed both inside and outside the workplace.

Maggie Seidel, senior advisor and policy director, office of Gov. Kristi Noem

Full statement from Union

UFCW members at Smithfield in Sioux Falls, like our members across the country, are hard-working, incredibly dedicated, and focused on delivering the safe food that American families need during this outbreak. Keeping our food supply chain strong starts with ensuring that these brave frontline workers have safe workplaces, essential protective equipment, and the strong pay they need to support their families as they do this incredibly important work.

The COVID-19 cases at this plant are troubling, and even one case is unacceptable. However, after the first positive case, we pushed Smithfield to move quickly to ensure the safety of the workers in the plant, including closing the department where the outbreak was centered.

UFCW successfully secured additional protections and support for these Smithfield workers, including access to testing with union-negotiated health care, paid leave to stay home from the beginning of the outbreak if any worker came in contact with a person with coronavirus (as determined by the employer or the union). As the outbreak continues, UFCW is working to ensure all of our members continue to have aggressive and proactive representation that pushes to have their plant meet the highest safety standards.

We applaud Smithfield’s decision to temporarily close the plant to push for an even safer work environment and will continue to push them to implement stringent safety measures at this plant and at every plant we represent.”

United Food and Commercial Workers International Union Statement

This is a developing story.

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