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Food Processing Plant Becomes a COVID-19 Hotspot. Now What?

Food Processing Plant Becomes a COVID-19 Hotspot. Now What?

COVID-19 Food Safety One Health Pandemics Public Health

By Karen Townsend

The good news is that your Easter ham is safe for consumption. The bad news is that the food supply chain is being disrupted briefly as some food processing plants deal with the coronavirus.

A Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in South Dakota has become a COVID-19 hotspot after more than 80 employees have tested positive for the virus. The union representing the employees says that 120 have been confirmed to have the coronavirus. Operations in a large portion of the Sioux Falls plant will suspend on Saturday to begin deep cleaning and sanitizing the plant, and then completely close on Sunday and Monday. Physical barriers (like plexiglass) will be installed to enhance social distancing practices.

The plant employs 3,700 people. This new hotspot accounts for 30% of cases in Minnehaha County. The CEO of Smithfield Foods is out front in reassuring consumers that measures are being taken to keep employees safe and the food supply chain safe.

On Monday Tyson Foods found itself in the same predicament. A large pork processing plant in southeastern Iowa had to suspend operations after more than two dozen employees tested positive for the coronavirus. The suspension remains in effect through the end of the week and then the situation will be revisited. That plant has 1,400 employees, all of whom will be paid as normal.

In the case of the Smithfield Foods processing plant, the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed on March 26. Originally plant officials said operations would continue as normal and the plant would not shut down, nor would employees be sent home. This week that decision changed due to the increased number of employees testing positive.

A South Dakota state epidemiologist finds fault with Smithfield Foods for not taking precautions earlier. He says other companies who continue to operate during the pandemic should heed the results of that lack of preparedness.

All of this coming from food processing plants leads to another question many of us have asked – what about take-out food now being sold by restaurants and fast food places? How safe is it for us to purchase and consume that food? Rest easy, it’s safe, according to current guidelines from the FDA. As long as the restaurants are taking precautions in food preparation and you observe handwashing after handling the order, your take-out order is safe.

That makes sense, right? The same concerns that some of us normally think about when ordering food, like are the food preparers practicing good hygienic precautions, apply now. And, it’s a good reminder that we, the consumers, should practice precautionary measures like washing our hands before eating after handling the bag or box the food is in.

This is a good time for us to remember the struggling food businesses in our communities. The best way we can help right now is to order food from those who are able to stay open and offer pick-up or drive-through service. Then when this national hunkering down period ends, those businesses will be able to open back up and keep their workers employed. Help your favorite restaurants now so that they will be there later when this is all over.

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