COVID-19 outbreaks at NC food processing plants raises food supply chain concerns

Source: WNCN
Source: WNCN(WNCN)
Updated: Apr. 22, 2020 at 10:55 PM EDT
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RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — As employees at food processing plants around the state get sick with COVID19, there are concerns about North Carolina’s food supply chain.

There are outbreaks of COVID19 at five food processing facilities in the state. Tuesday, Mountaire Farms confirmed cases at their plants in Siler City and Lumber Bridge.

“These workers are as essential as anybody else fighting the pandemic outbreak,” said N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler.

Troxler says any backup at the food processing plants could cause a disruption in the food supply chain.

“We are being very proactive in North Carolina to try to keep these plants operating as fully as they can,” he said.

DHHS issued several guidelines to protect the health and safety of plant workers. Those guidelines include creating space and barriers between workers, disinfecting all areas of the plant, providing PPE and hand sanitizer to employees, and pre-screening workers for fever and symptoms prior to work.

“The packing plants, the food processing plants, any manufacturing plants are going to have people that are congregating at some point. Working on social distancing, separation, sanitation, all of these are part of what is going to have to happen to keep all of our plants open,” Troxler said.

Troxler said he’s concerned about the impact on the state’s farms if plants slow down because workers continue to get sick. Troxler says protein sources on farms could have to be euthanized if they can’t be put in the supply chain.

“This is a terrible blow to agriculture, not only in North Carolina but the whole county. We do feed the country at the farm level,” he said.

A Mountaire Farms spokesperson says they are proactively trying to protect employees from COVID-19.

“We are following all CDC guidelines when that happens and sending employees home who may have had contact and are symptomatic. We have been in regular contact with the NC Health Department and are working together to help prevent the spread of the virus,” said Catherine Bassett, Director of Communications and Community Relations for Mountaire Farms.

Bassett says Mountaire Farms initiated temperature checks, mandatory face masks and face shields at all processing plants, and social distancing on production lines including installing plexiglass.

They’ve also increased cleaning and disinfecting, as well as the amount of hand sanitizer in facilities.

Bassett says they’ve relaxed attendance policies so employees don’t have to fear losing their jobs if they are sick, and issued pay raises for all hourly employees.

“We have an amazing team at Mountaire Farms, that works together to produce the best quality products that our customers have come to expect from us. They have faced this challenge with strength and determination and we’re proud of them every day. We have no plans at this time to depopulate any chickens, but we understand that other companies are faced with difficult decisions during this crisis,” said Bassett in a statement.