By Jacob Bunge 

Meatpacking company JBS USA Holdings Inc. said it has removed hundreds of at-risk workers from a Colorado beef plant in response to rising Covid-19 infections, as the U.S. meat industry seeks to defend itself against the pandemic's current surge.

JBS's move comes as the largest U.S. beef processor faces a fresh Covid-19 outbreak in Greeley, Colo., where the company maintains a beef plant that employs about 3,500 people, making it one of the country's largest.

U.S. meatpackers are shoring up defenses to keep Covid-19 out of plants that collectively employ hundreds of thousands of workers, supplying meat to fast-food chains and supermarkets. Rapidly spreading infections associated with U.S. meatpacking plants last spring killed dozens of workers, forced widespread shutdowns and led to shortages in some meat products, while backing up livestock on farms.

JBS's latest response appears to be one of the biggest containment efforts a major meat-packing plant has made since the spring and shows the challenges still facing the industry as the virus spreads.

The company on Nov. 7 removed 202 Greeley plant workers considered vulnerable to the coronavirus due to age and other factors, a JBS spokesman said. Those workers are getting full pay and benefits and can return to work after community-infection rates decrease, he said. The step has had marginal effect on the plant's beef production, according to the company.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has reported 32 infections among workers at the plant, classifying it as an outbreak on Nov. 17. The department separately has counted 46 positive cases among workers at JBS's corporate offices in another outbreak dated to Oct. 19. Weld County, where the plant is located, has reported an average of 235 positive cases over the past week, according to county health-department data.

JBS and other meat companies, including Tyson Foods Inc., Cargill Inc. and Smithfield Foods Inc., responded to the pandemic by installing automated temperature checks at plant entrances and partitions between processing line-work stations, while requiring masks and sitting workers farther apart in company cafeterias. Some are testing employees randomly to guard against asymptomatic workers unknowingly spreading the virus, and expanding paid sick leave so infected employees aren't tempted to keep reporting to work.

JBS, a unit of Brazilian meat company JBS SA, last spring temporarily closed several beef and pork plants across the country as Covid-19 infections spread among workers. Other big meat producers, such as Tyson, Smithfield and Cargill, also closed plants. At JBS's Greeley beef plant, six workers died last spring, all over age 60. JBS in mid-March offered paid leave for all U.S. plant employees aged 70 or older, and later expanded that to cover workers who are 60 and older.

Across the company's U.S. plants, currently about 8% of workers have been sent home with pay due to their higher-risk status. That number has increased over the fall as Covid-19 cases generally have climbed around the country, the spokesman said. JBS has spent about $5 million on a "surveillance-testing" model that tests a random sampling of workers with no symptoms at each plant, while monitoring virus case rates at communities around its facilities, he said.

That data has helped determine when and how many workers to remove from plants, and helped make executives optimistic they can avoid repeating last spring's shutdowns, JBS USA Chief Executive Andre Nogueira said in October.

"I'm pretty confident we are not going to have the size of the disruption we saw in April and May," Mr. Nogueira said.

Kim Cordova, head of the local United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents JBS plant employees, said sending home at-risk workers was a good move. She added that the company needs to offer daily on-site testing for employees to ensure the virus doesn't take root again in the plant.

The JBS spokesman said the company worked with the state last week to offer testing to the plant's entire workforce, and tests workers at the plant daily if they show Covid-19 symptoms or believe they have been exposed to the virus.

Meat-industry executives have sought priority for plant workers to receive vaccines against the coronavirus as they become available, after front-line health workers and particularly vulnerable people. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's advisory committee tasked with guiding the agency's recommendations on vaccine prioritization has proposed food and agriculture workers to receive the shots as part of "Phase 1b," after health-care personnel and long-term care-facility residents.

Write to Jacob Bunge at jacob.bunge@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

December 04, 2020 10:14 ET (15:14 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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