JBS Employee May Be First COVID-19 Fatality; Smithfield, Maple Leaf, Cargill Report Cases

April 8, 2020
Several more food plants – mostly meat facilities -- close due to coronavirus.

In the past 48 hours, COVID-19 has taken a huge toll on a number of U.S. and Canadian food plants, especially meat processing facilities. A JBS employee died from the disease, it was reported today, and cases appeared at Smithfield Foods, Maple Leaf and Cargill meat plants.

An employee at a JBS beef processing plant in Greeley, Colo., died, according to his family and the union that represents workers at JBS USA. The victim was identified in news reports as Saul Sanchez, 78.

The Denver Fox News affiliate quoted Andre Nogueira, CEO of JBS USA, as saying 15 employees out of more than 6,000 at various Weld County JBS USA workers tested positive for COVID-19.

Work continues at a JBS meatpacking plant in Grand Island, Neb., where 10 workers tested positive last week.

More than 80 employees at the Smithfield Foods Sioux Falls, S.D., pork plant tested positive for COVID-19, state health officials announced today (April 8). By end of day, the plant apparently had not been closed.

But Maple Leaf Foods closed its Brampton, Ontario, plant today after three COVID cases occurred at that facility.

“Our first priority is to keep our people safe so the decision was made to shut down the facility, pending a full risk assessment,” read a statement from President/CEO Michael McCain. “While we complete the investigation, we are deep cleaning the plant including common areas and offices. … We will not begin operating again until we are confident that it is safe to return to work.”

An additional COVID case occurred at a Maple Leaf plant in Hamilton, Ontario. “The affected team member had not been present at the plant for two weeks before the diagnosis. We've completed thorough sanitation at Heritage and the plant is fully operating.”

After an unspecified number of workers at its Hazleton, Pa., meat processing plant tested positive for the coronavirus (COVID-19), Cargill announced the facility would temporarily close effective April 7.

Up till now, COVID-19's effect on the food industry has mostly meant overtime work and shifting production from foodservice to retail.

Back in South Dakota, the former John Morrell plant is one of Sioux Falls' largest employers, with more than 3,500 employees. On March 26, a single employee at the plant was identified as testing positive and was removed and quarantined. Smithfield officials stepped up sanitation and other preventive measures but kept the plant open.

A state official was quoted in a local newspaper as saying continuing operations at packing plants is critical to avoid disruptions to the nation’s food supply and to the South Dakota economy.

"We believe that the employer is taking appropriate action," Governor Krist Noem said during a news conference. One report said Smithfield CEO Kenneth Sullivan visited the plant to make sure proper measures were being taken.

Other food plants also have shut down because of COVID-19.

  • Tyson Foods, Inc. closed its Columbus Junction, Iowa, plant April 6 after dozens of workers tested positive.
  • Perdue Farms announced on March 28 that an employee at its Perry, Ga., poultry processing plant tested positive for the coronavirus.
  • A Lamb Weston French fry production plant in Pasco, Wash., briefly closed after one worker there tested positive for the virus.
  • Two weeks ago, a Kraft Heinz plant in Springfield, Mo., closed after two employees tested positive.
  • Frito-Lay closed its Modesto, Calif, plant on March 24 after several employees showed symptoms of COVID-19.

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