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California chicken plant to temporarily close after 8 COVID deaths

Coronavirus pandemic impacts meat industry
Coronavirus pandemic impacts U.S. meat industry 04:54

Foster Farms on Tuesday night plans to close its chicken processing plant in Livingston, California, for a week of cleaning, bowing to an edict from county public health officials who ordered the closure after eight workers died of COVID-19 and 392 tested positive. 

The company will shut down the processing plant until Monday evening, September 7, for two rounds of deep cleaning and two rounds of COVID-19 testing for all 1,400 people employed at the facility, Foster Farms said in a statement issued over the weekend. If six days is not enough to fully clean the facility and test all workers, the closure could be extended, Merced County health officials said in a statement.

Only the part of the Livingston facility that is affected by the outbreak will close, health officials noted. The rest will remain open, with workers undergoing frequent tests, officials said.

Foster Farms also promised to take additional steps outlined by county health officials. "We further agree with the Merced Public Health Department that opportunities exist to enhance social distancing, add to professional healthcare staffing that will oversee COVID-19 programs and improve COVID-19 related employee communication."

The latest missive from the company struck a far more conciliatory tone than one issued on Friday. In that statement, Foster Farms defended its response to the outbreak, expressed confidence that the facility was safe and did not say whether it would comply with the county's closure order.

California health officials had ordered the plant's closure as the local public health department worked to curtail what it calls "the most severe and long-lasting outbreak in Merced County" at the facility in Livingston.

The true count of infections among the plant's employees is unknown, as the official count is largely based on workers who chose to get tested and reported the results, the Merced County Department of Public Health said last week.

The facility now accounts for 18% of COVID-19 deaths of those 64 and younger in the county. The county public health department's account of what led to its closure order is a somber retelling of deaths that seemingly didn't have to happen. 

In late June, a month before any workers had died, but as cases tied to the Foster Farms outbreak continued to rise, Merced County health officials visited the plant and offered recommendations for controlling its spread, the MCDPH said in a statement

Foster Farms did not fully heed guidance to conduct widespread testing of its workers and change their break space, according to the health department.

Throughout July, public health officials urged widespread testing to control the outbreak. Foster Farms initially tested less than 100, or about 10%, of those who worked in the department with the most cases, and 25% of those tests came back positive. It took the company an additional three weeks to broaden its testing, and "subsequently, three fatalities were linked to that department alone."

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After another site visit to the plant in early August, the county issued two directives to Foster Farms spelling out the steps it needed to take to control of the spread of the virus. In the more than three weeks since, COVID's spread within the plant has not been contained and active outbreaks continue, "posing a significant threat to Foster Farms employees and the surrounding community," according to the county health department's statement.

Before issuing its closure order, county and state officials said they tried to work with Foster Farms but were unable to reach an agreement.

"In view of increasing deaths and uncontrolled COVID-19 cases, the decision was made to order the Livingston Plant within the Foster Farms Livingston Complex closed until acceptable safety measures are in place," Dr. Salvador Sandoval, Merced County's Public Health Officer, said in the statement. "The closure of this plant is the only way to get the outbreak at Foster Farms swiftly under control."

The Los AngelesTimes reported that Foster Farms employees received emails late Thursday telling them to report to their regular shifts Thursday night or Friday.  "The plant and all other facilities on the Livingston complex are safely operating," said the email reviewed by the newspaper. "Please continue to wear your face covering and follow other safe practices at work and outside of work."

Foster Farms reportedly employs about 12,000 people at turkey and chicken processing plants in five states. In addition to California, the multibillion dollar company also has operations in Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon and Washington. 

As of last week, there have been at least 37,500 reported positive cases tied to meatpacking facilities in 416 plants across 40 states, according to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. Some 170 workers have died, according to the Center. 

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