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Meat Processing Plants Suspend Operations After Workers Fall Ill

Several meat processing plants around the U.S. are sitting idle this week because workers have been infected with the coronavirus. Tyson Foods, one of the country's biggest meat processors, says it suspended operations at its pork plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa, after more than two dozen workers got sick with COVID-19. National Beef Packing stopped slaughtering cattle at another Iowa plant, and JBS USA shut down work at a beef plant in Pennsylvania.

Most farms and food companies are continuing to operate during the COVID-19 pandemic. There's concern that the coronavirus could spread among workers doing some of the most labor-intensive jobs, including meat processing.

Christine McCracken, a top meat industry analyst with RaboResearch Food & Agribusiness, told NPR via email that these plant closings aren't yet having a significant impact on the overall supply of meat to consumers, but there's increasing concern in the industry about worker shortages.

"Most processors I work with have seen a significant increase in absenteeism," McCracken wrote. "Whether that is due to actual COVID-19 issues, childcare issues (with the closure of schools) or even fear of contracting the disease it is unclear. In some cases, the decline in available workers is severe."

In a statement released Monday, Tyson Foods said it is taking a variety of measures to reduce the risk of infection. The company is buying protective face coverings for employees, increasing the spacing or erecting dividers between workers inside its plants, and setting up tents or outdoor spaces for employees to use during breaks. In some cases, these measures are slowing down production.

A handful of workers at a JBS plant in Greeley, Colo., have tested positive for the coronavirus. According to the Greeley Tribune, hundreds of workers didn't show up for work on Monday in protest of the lack of protections for workers.

McCracken said meat processors are trying to prepare for worker shortages by hiring more employees and by cross-training existing employees to do additional jobs but that the companies have had "limited success" with these measures.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dan Charles is NPR's food and agriculture correspondent.