Foster Farms Worker Tests Positive for COVID-19, Fresno Plant Stays Open

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A donated Foster Farms turkey in November 2017.  (Justin Sullivan/Getty Image)

This report contains a correction.

Employees at a Foster Farms processing plant in south Fresno were notified this week that one of their coworkers tested positive for COVID-19.

In a letter obtained by KQED, Operations Manager Scott Shows said the employee “has not worked since April 11th, as he was self-quarantined as a precautionary measure.”

It’s the first reported case among Foster Farms’ processing plants in California.

Ira Brill, vice president of communications for Foster Farms, said the employee worked on the processing line. Workers on the processing line might do a number of tasks, including eviscerating, cutting up and cleaning chickens, supervising or other jobs.

The company is now working to find out who else at the plant may have been exposed. Brill said other employees are in quarantine, but would not say how many.

“We run wellness checks at these plants, including the (plant in Fresno), where we’re monitoring every employee’s temperature. As they enter the plant, we are asking — have they had shortness of breath, coughing,” Brill said.

One plant employee, who asked not to be named because he feared he would lose his job, told KQED he was notified that a worker had tested positive while leaving work late Wednesday afternoon.

“Of course there is fear and worry, as we don’t want anyone to get sick,” the employee said. “Sometimes we don’t want to go to work because you don’t know what the person next to you might have, but we’re all dependent on a paycheck and have few options.”

A statement released by Foster Farms on Wednesday said that the company has implemented measures to protect employees per guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including: expanded sanitation, wellness checks, encouraging employees to wear face coverings, installing dividers to maintain social distance in workspaces and break areas, among other steps.

Brill said the plant would stay open and would not curtail operations, as long as it does not pose a risk to the community where the company operates.

“One positive (diagnosis) does not constitute a risk,” Brill said. “It’s a positive that we hoped would not happen. We are doing everything possible, and have taken many of these steps before other companies have, to limit the impact on the workforce.”

Employees at other Foster Farms meat processing plants have tested positive for COVID-19, including facilities in Kelso, Washington, and Farmerville, Louisiana. Those plants also remain open.

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One of the largest outbreaks was at a Smithfield pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where more than 800 workers contracted the virus. And Tyson Foods closed its largest pork production plant, in Waterloo, Iowa, on Wednesday after an outbreak among workers there.

“We are fearful because we’re hearing what’s happening worldwide, what the newspapers are saying about other meat plants,” the worker who spoke with KQED said.

Companies are facing the challenge of preventing transmission of the virus between employees working on the same line, according to Dr. Manpreet Singh, professor of poultry science and extension food safety specialist at the University of Georgia.

“They are doing the best they can, given what they have. The infrastructure of the plant ... is designed for where people work in fairly close proximity to each other,” Singh explained. “Now they’re trying to modify that into either putting a shield between lines, or trying to separate between lines, so that it’s not a bigger group of people who are all within this one big building.”

Brill said for positions in areas of the plant where complete social distancing is not possible, the company was installing dividers.

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“We have installed, or are installing, partitions — both in the break rooms and in the workplace,” Brill said. “In those areas where the actual structure does not permit 6 feet of distance, at least we’re putting barriers in place that hopefully would contain a cough or something like that if somebody does that.”

There were no dividers installed by Wednesday afternoon, the worker said.

“Let’s see what they do,” the worker said. “I don’t think they’ll do anything because we stand right next to one another.”

Members of the community have also voiced concerns about worker safety. Naindeep Singh, executive director of the Jakara Movement, a Sikh community organizing nonprofit, sent two letters to Foster Farms — one in mid-March and another in early April — expressing concerns on behalf of workers about the lack of social distancing and other safety precautions not being taken at plants in the Central Valley.

Singh said many of the plant’s employees are immigrants aged 50 and older whose children have pressured them to stay home from work.

“All of us are paying attention to what’s happening across the country,” Singh said. “Meat plants are oftentimes the hot spots. So we’re looking at what happened in Smithfield, in South Dakota, at Tyson, at other plants. And workers are extremely concerned and their families are very nervous.”

In a statement, Brill said the company is "committed to keeping our workforce safe and have taken all necessary steps to do so. We encourage employees with any concerns to discuss them with supervisors and HR managers, who stand ready to help.”

Food processing plants are considered “essential businesses” under California’s shelter-in-place order.

Foster Farms operates four processing plants in California’s Central Valley, including two in Fresno, one in Livingston and one in Turlock. The company employs 7,500 people across all facilities, including plants, logistics, transportation and distribution, management and administration, according to spokesperson for the company.

“Right now, this country faces a protein shortage,” Brill said. “The president, the vice president, the secretary of agriculture (have) said that poultry-processing plants essentially represent an essential part of our national infrastructure in order to keep food on the table.”

“We are trying to meet that need. Because there are probably 20 million families in California that include chicken as a regular part of their diet,” Brill said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Foster Farms facilities in Kelso, Washington, and Farmerville, Louisiana had closed due to coronavirus outbreaks among workers. While workers at both facilities have tested positive for COVID-19, the facilities remain open.

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