Foster Farms announced August 29 that it would temporarily shut down the main building of its Livingston, California, poultry complex after almost 400 workers contracted COVID-19. In the statement, Foster Farms confirmed that 392 employees were sickened "in recent months," and eight of these had died of complications related to the virus. The closure follows an order from the Merced County Department of Public Health mandating that the main building close for at least six days.
Employees who work in the building will have to test negative twice in seven days in order to return to work, and the building will undergo two rounds of deep cleaning. “If proper deep cleaning and employee testing cannot be achieved by then, the closure could be extended,” said the MCDPH order.
In a statement, Foster Farms said the illnesses spread despite having “promptly implemented a comprehensive set of employee protective measures that strictly adhere to CDC guidance.” These include increasing sanitation and personal hygiene checks, increased handwashing and sanitizer stations, monitoring employees for fever and other symptoms of COVID-19, mandatory cloth masks, and partitions in work and break areas of the plant.
Other parts of the complex that are not experiencing an outbreak will remain open.
The Livingston Poultry Complex, which was first identified as an outbreak site June 29, is one of many meat processing operations nationwide plagued by outbreaks of the novel coronavirus, including pork processing plants owned by Smithfield Foods, Inc., Tyson Foods, and JBS USA. In a statement, Foster Farms noted that symptomatic cases of the virus are declining after peaking in July.
“Recent results from Foster Farms’ testing of 2,500 employees at the Livingston poultry plant indicate a COVID-19 prevalence level of less than 1%,” the statement said, although it noted that the results did not “fully rule out the possibility of community spread within the facility” and insisted it would avoid complacency.
The L.A. Times reported that enforcement of an earlier, stricter order was delayed for 48 hours after the health department received a call from the Department of Agriculture. In its August 29 order, the MCDPH said it allowed Foster Farms extra time before closing “due to the massive coordination efforts required to prepare the facility for appropriate disinfection and safe removal of poultry.”
Meat processing and packing operations are uniquely challenged in terms of containing the spread of infectious diseases, including COVID-19. In the latest available report, updated July 10, the CDC reported that 23 states had reported a total of 16,233 cases in 239 meat and poultry processing facilities. Five states did not report any laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 cases, and 22 states with animal processing facilities did not respond to the request for data. That represents at least a fourfold increase in cases since the beginning of May, when the CDC reported that more than 4,000 workers had contracted the virus.
Back in April, after Tyson Foods CEO John Tyson warned that COVID-19 related closures could lead to shortages in the national food supply chain, President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to direct meat processing factories to stay open.