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Meat plants face challenge

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Daily reports of giant meat-processing plants closing because workers tested positive for the coronavirus have called into question whether slaughterhouses can remain virus-free.

According to experts, the answer may be no.

Given that the plants employ thousands of people who often work side by side carving meat, social distancing is all but impossible. Because of that, the risk of catching the virus will likely remain even as companies take steps to increase worker protections.

“It’s not that people aren’t trying. It’s just that it is very difficult to control this illness,” said Dennis Burson, an animal science professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The list of companies dealing with infected workers has been growing every day at plants across the country. Among the latest was the closure Wednesday of Tyson Foods’ huge pork-processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa, after numerous workers tested positive. That follows closures of a Smithfield Foods pork plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota; a JBS beef plant in Greeley, Colorado; and many others. Some, including the Tyson pork plant in Perry, Iowa, have reopened after deep cleanings.

The closures shouldn’t cause any immediate meat shortages or big price jumps at supermarkets, but as Purdue University economist Jason Lusk noted, “It’s a very fluid and volatile situation to keep an eye out for in the days to come.”

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, whose state leads the nation in pork production, acknowledged the likelihood of “clusters of positive cases” at meat-processing plants but said the operations must remain open.

“Without them, people’s lives and our food supply will be impacted,” Reynolds said.

At least 10 worker deaths linked to the virus have been reported at meat-processing plants nationwide, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers union.

In an attempt to protect workers, companies have started checking employee temperatures, staggering breaks and altering start times. Owners said they have also done more to clean plants, added more break space and slowed production lines.

“We are looking for countless ways of ensuring we have good, healthy social distancing in our plants. It’s not impossible despite the number of people in our plants,” said Hector Gonzalez, Tyson’s senior vice president of human resources.

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