More Smithfield Foods plants close

Published 8:36 pm Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Stephen Faleski

Staff Writer


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A sausage plant in St. Charles, Ill., is the latest Smithfield Foods facility to shutter due to COVID-19.

According to a press release the Kane County, Ill., Health Department issued on April 25, the closure is the result of an order the department issued to Smithfield Foods Inc. earlier that day, which required the company to suspend its operations at the St. Charles plant “so that the health department can work with the company in mitigation efforts as well as providing education relative to social distancing and employee safety relative to personal protective equipment.” 

The St. Charles plant is the fifth Smithfield Foods facility nationwide to close due to COVID-19 since the start of April. The company announced its first closure, a South Dakota plant, on April 12, followed by two more plants — one in Missouri and one in Wisconsin — on April 15. The day before the St. Charles plant was ordered to close, Smithfield Foods had announced it would suspend operations at another Illinois plant in the city of Monmouth, after “a small portion” of that plant’s 1,700 employees tested positive for COVID-19, according to a company press release.

Asked if “work with the company in mitigation efforts” and “providing education relative to social distancing and … personal protective equipment” meant the health department had any reason to believe the St. Charles plant had not been using either prior to the shutdown, Susan Stack, communications coordinator for the KCHD, said, “I can’t speak to the use of PPE or social distancing in the plant at this time.”

“As the investigation is ongoing, a reopening date is uncertain at this time,” she added, stating that it was “not conclusive” whether there were any confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the St. Charles facility.

The company, however, denied allegations that the company was not doing enough at its various plants to protect employees, particularly in regard to providing face masks and other PPE.

“We are doing everything we can, as fast as we can,” said Keira Lombardo, executive vice president of corporate affairs and compliance, in an April 24 press release intended to “address misinformation as it confronts COVID-19,” according to the document. “There are, however, inescapable realities about our industry. Meat processing facilities, which are characterized by labor intensive assembly line style production, are not designed for social distancing. Employees often work in close proximity on production lines. Similarly, space constraints exist in common areas such as cafeterias, break and locker rooms and bathrooms.”

“Overnight, the need for masks and face shields was thrust upon us and the nation,” Lombardo added. “Procuring these items, at a time when PPE supply chains were stressed to the max, was challenging to say the least. Even today, we are struggling to keep inventories in stock.”

As for what this latest closure means for Smithfield Foods’ facilities here, Lombardo assured The Smithfield Times via email that its plant in town remains operational but declined to comment on whether there had been any reported cases of COVID-19 among local workers.

“Out of respect for our employees’ legal privacy, we will not confirm COVID-19 cases in our facilities,” she said.

She did, however, state in her earlier press release, “Virtually every major plant in the country is dealing with positive cases.”

As of Tuesday, the Virginia Department of Health was tracking six outbreaks of COVID-19 in its Western Tidewater Health District, which includes Isle of Wight County, Southampton County and the cities of Franklin and Suffolk. Five of these are reported to be at long-term care facilities and the sixth is reported to be at a correctional facility. Statewide, 45 outbreaks are linked to congregate settings, which the VDH defines to include residential communities, businesses and other communal venues, but none of these outbreaks is in the Western Tidewater district.