CHICAGO (Reuters) – More than 5,000 U.S. meat and food-processing workers have been infected with or exposed to the new coronavirus, and 13 have died, the country’s largest meatpacking union said on Thursday.
Major meat processors like JBS USA and Tyson Foods Inc have indefinitely shuttered slaughterhouses as the virus has spread among plant employees who often must work shoulder to shoulder. The shutdowns have limited U.S. production as demand has increased at grocery stores.
Brazilian-owned JBS, Tyson Foods and Cargill Inc did not immediately respond to requests for comment about how many plant employees had been infected or died.
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union said employees in the meat sector have not had enough equipment to protect themselves from the virus. The union has 250,000 members who are meat packing and food processing workers, and represent about 80% of U.S. beef and pork production and 40% of poultry production.
Plant workers on a conference call organized by the union said meat companies have been taking employees’ temperatures, bleaching hallways and doorways, and installing dividers to separate workers, as part of efforts to prevent spread of the virus. However, several employees said they still feared falling ill from the contagious respiratory disease.
“As far as social distancing, it’s almost impossible,” said Margarita Heredia, who works in a JBS pork plant in Marshalltown, Iowa. “There’s no room.”
The union is pushing government officials to provide more protective equipment like masks for plant workers.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is separately trying to obtain face masks for meat inspectors who work in plants, according to the agency. Supplies are limited due to high demand, requiring some inspectors to provide their own masks, the USDA said. As a result, the USDA authorized a one-time reimbursement of $50 to Food Safety and Inspection Service employees who must work away from home.
Reporting by Tom Polansek in Chicago. Additional reporting by Christopher Walljasper in Chicago; Editing by Franklin Paul and David Gregorio