Foster Farms Ordered to Shut Down COVID-19-Stricken Central Valley Poultry Plant

1 min
Foster Farms chicken is seen for sale in a Los Angeles grocery store in October 2015. (Robyn Beck/AFP-Getty Images)

Merced County health authorities have ordered a Foster Farms poultry processing plant to shut down in an attempt to halt a COVID-19 outbreak that has claimed the lives of eight workers so far.

The county's Department of Public Health issued the order Wednesday and announced it publicly in a statement Thursday, saying the outbreak at the plant in the town of Livingston is “the most severe and long-lasting” in hard-hit Merced County.

The county said enforcement of the order would be stayed for 48 hours “to help facilitate logistics” associated with the closure.

The health department said the facility, which normally employs about 3,500 people, should remain closed until the company undertakes steps to ensure it can reopen safely.

The county says 358 workers at the plant have tested positive for the coronavirus to date, though it added that number is based on employees who have chosen to get tested and voluntarily reported results to the company. "The true spread of COVID-19 in the Foster Farms Livingston facility remains unknown," the county's statement said.

more coverage

“The closure of this plant is the only way to get the outbreak at Foster Farms swiftly under control,” Dr. Salvador Sandoval, the county’s public health officer, said in the statement. “Our hearts are with the eight families who have lost a loved one.”

The county said its health officials, along with representatives from the California Department of Public Health and the office of state Attorney General Xavier Becerra, “worked with Foster Farms to limit the impact of the closure and could not reach agreement.”

The county’s announcement included a statement from Becerra and a separate letter from California’s acting health officer urging compliance with the county order.

Becerra said the Livingston plant “has experienced an alarming spread of COVID-19 among its workers. Nobody can ignore the facts: It’s time to hit the reset button” at the facility.

Foster Farms’ communication chief, Ira Brill, said the company would issue a statement on the shutdown order on Friday.

But in a message sent by text message and in robocalls to Livingston plant workers Thursday evening, the company directed employees to “report to work for their next scheduled shift.”

“Sites are safely operating,” the message said. “Please wear face covering and follow other safe practices.”

Sponsored

The statement from Merced County health officials said the shutdown order came only after what they described as Foster Farms' repeated failure to heed advice on testing and other measures needed to contain the outbreak.

The county said Foster Farms' slow response to health officials' recommendations for widespread testing at the plant led to directives on Aug. 5 and Aug. 11 requiring "immediate COVID-19 testing of all permanent, volunteer and temporary employees who share air within a facility that has an outbreak."

But county health officials say it's not clear whether Foster Farms complied with that order.

"Since the August 5th directive was issued, the spread of COVID-19 within the facility has not been contained and active outbreaks continue to exist, posing a significant threat to Foster Farms employees and the surrounding community," the county statement said. "Furthermore, testing as required by the Health Directive had not been completed and it is unclear whether the temporary workers were included in testing, as recommended" by the health department.

In a letter to the company dated Thursday, Dr. Erica Pan, the state's acting health officer, said Foster Farms' failure to comply with the county directives "is not only jeopardizing the health of permanent, temporary, and volunteer workers and their families but also increasing the risk of community transmission in Merced County and surrounding counties, which are already experiencing very high levels of transmission."

Cal/OSHA, the state's workplace safety regulator, opened an investigation into conditions at the plant in July. That probe is ongoing.

Merced County has seen one of California's biggest spikes in COVID-19, with the viral disease spreading rapidly through San Joaquin Valley communities heavily dependent on agricultural and food-processing jobs where people typically work in close quarters.

The county has reported a total of 7,814 coronavirus cases and 114 deaths. Livingston, home to the Foster Farms plant now facing closure, has recorded 821 infections to date. That gives it a rate of one in 17 residents positive for the virus, among the highest per capita rates in the state.