Southwest Kansas packing plants scramble in the wake of COVID-19 breakouts

As with other essential businesses, meat packing plants have been provided a strict protocol to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Despite these precautions, multiple cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in southwest Kansas by both National Beef Packing Co. and Cargill Inc. at plants in Dodge City and Liberal, Kansas. Additionally, on April 22, the Finney County Health Department confirmed multiple positive cases of COVID-19 among employees at the Tyson Foods plant in Holcomb, Kansas.

Dr. Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, stated in an April 22 press conference that there are a total of 168 positive cases in six Kansas packing plants, but no deaths thus far. Although these plants have been referred to as “hot spots,” the companies have expressed no plans to temporarily shut down. Instead, the plants are working to sanitize their facilities, offer more personal protective equipment for employees and ensure workers feeling ill stay home. Additionally, the plants will continue to enforce the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention standards of checking employees temperatures daily, requiring workers to wear face masks, use face shields and encouraging employees to social distance as much as possible.

However, while observing these recommendations, the tasks packing plant workers are required to accomplish while working at a fast moving conveyor belt have made it difficult for them to stay 6 feet apart at all times, leading to outbreaks in the virus.

According to reported data as of April 21, coronavirus had spread to at least 48 U.S. meatpacking plants, making more than 2,200 people sick and killing 17. Although packing plants are facing an uphill battle with balancing the safety of their employees and meeting the consumer demand for meat products at this time, the outbreaks at plants should not stop consumers from purchasing meat for fear of contracting COVID-19. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has stated there is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with COVID-19 transmission. As for the packing plants, they will continue to try to make good decisions on behalf of their employees and the products consumers demand and wait the coronavirus pandemic out.

“First and foremost, know that every leadership decision is focused on reducing the spread of COVID-19 throughout our communities and upholding our commitment to the safety and well-being of our employees,” said National Beef CEO Tim Klein in an April 17 statement. “We are following the guidance of the CDC and state and local health authorities in our plants, offices, and entire operation to help keep our employees safe.”

Lacey Newlin can be reached at 580-748-1892 or [email protected].