OMAHA (DTN) -- As meatpacking plants and other food processors reduce capacity or temporarily close because of coronavirus cases, Vice President Mike Pence pointed to the vital nature of the food industry and told those workers "to show up and do your job" to keep grocery shelves stocked.
Pence spoke at Tuesday evening's White House press conference about the challenges facing health-care workers. But then he shifted to the importance of the food supply, pointing to "the farmers and the ranchers, to our processors, to our distributors, to our truckers, to our grocers, Americans are keeping food on the table for our fellow Americans." Pence later added, "They are truly inspiring heroes."
But Pence said he had talked to CEOs in the meat and grain industry on Tuesday, including companies such as Tyson Foods and Hormel, and cited "some incidents of worker absenteeism and some plants have actually been forced to close temporarily."
The vice president then went on to say that everyone in the food industry is vital right now, but they also need to keep working.
"You are giving a great service to the people of the United States of America," Pence said. "And we need you to continue, as a part of what we call our critical infrastructure, to show up and do your job and know that we're going to continue to work tirelessly in working with all of your companies to make sure that that workplace is safe."
The food industry is deemed as "essential" by the federal government as it tries to keep both grocery stores open and shelves stocked with food around the country. Over the past few weeks, the pressure has increased for both the processing industry and retailers as workers become ill.
Packing plants around the country are increasingly struggling with positive coronavirus cases. Tyson Foods and National Beef on Monday announced they were temporarily suspending operations at a pork plant and beef plant in Iowa, respectively. Tyson had reported 24 positive cases at its pork plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa.
Cargill Inc. on Tuesday reported it was closing a packing plant in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, "until further notice" because the community has been heavily affected by coronavirus. JBS SA last week dialed back operations in Souderton, Pennsylvania, because at least two workers testing positive. Nebraska officials also have reported at least 13 positive cases from JBS workers in Grand Island, Nebraska.
Andre Nogueira, president and CEO of JBS USA, spoke to the Greeley, (Colorado) Tribune about worker safety on Tuesday after growing concerns about worker safety at the JBS Swift plant in Greeley. (https://www.greeleytribune.com/…)
Also Tuesday, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which represents poultry plant workers across the South, called out companies for their slow response to worker safety with COVID-19.
The union stated it "has been imploring" companies such as Tyson Foods, Equity Foods, JBS/Pilgrim's Pride, Koch Foods and Wayne Farms to improve worker safety. The union cited the high number of coronavirus cases in towns such as Albany and Camilla, Georgia; Shelbyville, Tennessee; and Carthage, Mississippi, where poultry workers have been impacted. The union cited that at least two workers from a Tyson facility in Camilla, Georgia, have died, "and many are sick or in quarantine," though a union spokesperson responded to DTN there was no direct evidence the workers who died contracted the virus at the plant.
The Greeley Tribune reported at least one worker at the JBS plant in Greeley had died.
Tyson on Monday cited it was taking additional measures to increase cleaning at its operations as well as focus on social distancing for workers. The company cited new practices would likely involve slowing down production lines.
Sanderson Farms, a major poultry producer, reported last week that more than two dozen employees had tested positive and more than 200 were under quarantine after infections at multiple plants. Sanderson had suspended operations in Moultrie, Georgia, because of the high number of cases there.
Other COVID-19 cases have been reported with Smithfield Foods operations in South Dakota and Wisconsin, but Smithfield has declined to release any details about its operations. A spokesman for Smithfield stated details about how the company is responding to COVID-19 can be found on Smithfield's website.
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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