The good news is that your Easter ham is safe for consumption. The bad news is that the food supply chain is being disrupted briefly as some food processing plants deal with the coronavirus.
A Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in South Dakota has become a COVID-19 hotspot after more than 80 employees have tested positive for the virus. The union representing the employees says that 120 have been confirmed to have the coronavirus. Operations in a large portion of the Sioux Falls plant will suspend on Saturday to begin deep cleaning and sanitizing the plant, and then completely close on Sunday and Monday. Physical barriers (like plexiglass) will be installed to enhance social distancing practices.
The plant employs 3,700 people. This new hotspot accounts for 30% of cases in Minnehaha County. The CEO of Smithfield Foods is out front in reassuring consumers that measures are being taken to keep employees safe and the food supply chain safe.
Smithfield Foods CEO Kenneth Sullivan said in a statement that the plant dishes out nearly 18 million servings of meat per day.
Sullivan said Smithfield Foods is taking “the utmost precautions and actions to ensure the health and wellbeing of our employees — with an even increased emphasis on our critical role in the ongoing supply of food to American families.”
The company said it would pay employees who were scheduled to work the days it will be closed.
On Monday Tyson Foods found itself in the same predicament. A large pork processing plant in southeastern Iowa had to suspend operations after more than two dozen employees tested positive for the coronavirus. The suspension remains in effect through the end of the week and then the situation will be revisited. That plant has 1,400 employees, all of whom will be paid as normal.
Tyson said that it has taken several steps to try to protect plant workers, including taking temperatures before their shifts and increasing cleaning and sanitizing of breakrooms, locker rooms and other areas.
In the case of the Smithfield Foods processing plant, the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed on March 26. Originally plant officials said operations would continue as normal and the plant would not shut down, nor would employees be sent home. This week that decision changed due to the increased number of employees testing positive.
A statement from the company on Wednesday said they had “instituted a series of stringent and detailed processes and protocols” to follow CDC guidelines, along with implementing mandatory 14-day COVID-19 quarantines with pay and relaxing attendance policies.
A South Dakota state epidemiologist finds fault with Smithfield Foods for not taking precautions earlier. He says other companies who continue to operate during the pandemic should heed the results of that lack of preparedness.
Business still operating during the pandemic should look to Smithfield as what can happen if proper steps aren’t take early on to lower the risk of spread, he said. And Joshua Clayton, South Dakota state epidemiologist, said employers should do symptom checks on staff before they enter the work place.
He said CDC has provided guidance on how to do that, and officials are working with essential employers to ensure they’re aware of what they should be doing.
“As an employer, they (should be) examining what they need to do to limit spread within their organization,” Clayton said.
All of this coming from food processing plants leads to another question many of us have asked – what about take-out food now being sold by restaurants and fast food places? How safe is it for us to purchase and consume that food? Rest easy, it’s safe, according to current guidelines from the FDA. As long as the restaurants are taking precautions in food preparation and you observe handwashing after handling the order, your take-out order is safe.
Infectious disease and food safety experts we spoke to say they base their determination that takeout food is safe on decades of research on other coronaviruses, which were first identified in humans in the 1960s.
“While COVID-19 is new to us, coronaviruses are not, and with all the studies done on these viruses, there has never been any information to implicate food-borne transmission,” says Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of medicine in the department of infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tenn.
The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is primarily spread via droplets expelled through coughing or sneezing, says William Schaffner. If you’re standing too close (within about 6 feet) to an infected person when the person coughs or sneezes, or even possibly when the person speaks or exhales, viral droplets could make their way to your nasal passages and mucous membranes. Or if you touch a surface with droplets on it and then touch your eyes, nose or mouth, that could also lead to infection.
All this means that transmission via food is incredibly unlikely, say both professors Schaffner — unless you actually inhaled your food. “Even in the so unlikely scenario of virus through a sneeze or cough coming into contact with, say, a salad, that would enter the body through the throat,” William Schaffner says.
That makes sense, right? The same concerns that some of us normally think about when ordering food, like are the food preparers practicing good hygienic precautions, apply now. And, it’s a good reminder that we, the consumers, should practice precautionary measures like washing our hands before eating after handling the bag or box the food is in.
This is a good time for us to remember the struggling food businesses in our communities. The best way we can help right now is to order food from those who are able to stay open and offer pick-up or drive-through service. Then when this national hunkering down period ends, those businesses will be able to open back up and keep their workers employed. Help your favorite restaurants now so that they will be there later when this is all over.