Meat processing workforce, communities facing more COVID-19 cases

Kansas Secretary of Agriculture Mike Beam said April 20 in a news conference that there is considerable attention in the national media on the impact of the workforce of the food processing industry, particularly the meat-processing sector.

“In Kansas we have several large beef processing facilities in southwest Kansas that process up to 25% of the nation’s supply of fresh beef,” Beam said. “We also have a large number of other meat and food processing facilities throughout the state. Sustaining the food supply chain is a priority in Kansas, especially these vital beef processing facilities.”

Two processing facilities, National Beef and Cargill, located in Dodge City, Kansas, have a number of cases among their workers. Ford County, where the plants are located, has reached 180 positive COVID-19 cases as of April 20, according to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. At this time, those major plants across Kansas are continuing to function, Beam said.

“We’ve been in regular dialogue with these companies from the beginning of the coronavirus event to monitor their progress and to provide help and guidance when necessary,” Beam said. “I’ve actually had conversations almost daily here for the last 30 days with these entities, trying to make sure that we keep them operating.”

Beam said the plants are “working hard to meet or exceed the guidance provided by the Center for Disease Control to minimize the risk to the workers in those facilities.”

“They are implementing significant changes in their facilities to protect the health and safety of their employees and their local communities, while maintaining the continuity of the food supply chain,” he said. “At times, these changes have resulted in some scaled back production to accommodate scheduling and staffing changes, along with the enhanced cleaning and sanitizing efforts, but the production continues.”

Beam said Kansas Department of Agriculture has been very pleased with how quickly these companies have addressed the issues with pre-emptive steps to enhance worker safety and how transparent they’ve been throughout this process.

Beam said it’s important to emphasize this is not a food safety issue.

“According to CDC and the Food and Drug Administration, there is no evidence of food and food packaging being associated with transmission of COVID-19,” he said. “In addition, at this time the challenges being seen are not resulting in a shortage of food. The challenges have been seen primarily as a result of distribution.”

There have been no widespread shortages of food.

“We appreciate all that’s been done by these companies as well as the work that’s being done at the local level to support all these efforts to maintain continuity and food supply, while also protecting the health of these essential workers who are meaningful part of the food and agriculture industry in Kansas,” Beam said.

KDHE Secretary Lee Norman said the state does not release information regarding the number of cases at the processing facilities. Instead it’s up to the local health departments, as they have jurisdiction to do the investigation and release any information.

“It’s a delicate balancing act,” Norman said. “It’s really not so much about privacy but about the sharing of information so that people understand where their real risks really are."

Norman said, for example, in Dodge or Garden City, they’re tracking a lot of the family members and health officials want to make sure they don’t evaluate the people who work in the plants as if they were a separate entity detached from their families and communities.

“We want to make sure that we one, don’t instill fear and have people stay home needlessly,” he said. “And secondly, we really give the families everything they need as well. So it’s a delicate balancing act and typically we leave it to the local health officials.”

Beam was questioned as to why the processing plants are considered to be a hot spot as compared to other office settings.

“These are plants with large numbers of employees, and in many situations, they would be working fairly close to each other,” Beam said.

Beam said many of these facilities have been working to spread employees out where they can, installing individual shields between workers, and making sure they all have facial protection.

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“But the one thing that we learned when we visited with the plants is they will do what they can and want to know how they can do more,” Beam said. “But what drives us as much as anything as what people do when they’re not at work. And it just reinforces the need for social distances in our daily lives.”

Kansas farmers and ranchers have an opportunity to receive funding with the new program the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced April 17. Beam said there are still a lot of specifics to work out, but once it becomes available, specifics will be released. Farm Service Agency county offices will be taking applications, working on eligibility requirements and processing applications.

“I know they’re gearing up to be prepared,” Beam said. “So we should know more specifics, but there will be significant dollars that will be distributed. We just don’t know quite yet.”

Beam said the products being purchased by USDA are ones that have previously been processed and were going into the food service sector.

“So when you have to shut down that sector, which includes, you know, restaurants, cafeterias in some cases schools, they have to almost overnight redirect, reprocess, repackage and try to move that to another,” Beam said. “I know that’s a hurdle.”

And there have been ongoing concerns and discussions about price levels for producers versus what consumers pay for meat products.

“I think once we get past this and we can keep that food processing sector viable and going, we’ll have those and there may be lots of interest to try and address that more directly at that time,” Beam said.

Kansas leaders

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly said in the news conference there have been 7,000 COVID-19 tests secured and being sent to Finney, Ford and Seward counties in southwest Kansas and Lyon County in east central Kansas, which all have meat processing facilities.

Norman said in the state, hospitals have been prepared and haven’t seen a surge in the needs of patients.

“We’re in really good shape and hospitals—we saw a blip, obviously, in the total number of inpatients with positive tests,” he said. “We know that today, for example, state wide it is about 100 patients, but we have not pushed on to a dangerous level on the number of ICU beds being used, the number of med surgery beds being used or the number of ventilators. Our hospitals have responded very creatively.”

There are things already in place for a second wave if need be. Norman believes the peak cases in Kansas are on track with their projections for the last week of April.

“We’ve set a trigger as 14 days of continuous drop in the number of new cases that is confounded a little bit by the fact that as we do more testing, that is going to find more cases,” he said. “Which overall was a good thing, because we want to know where those cases are.”

Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or [email protected].