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Coronavirus hits workers at 5 of big poultry processor's plants

Coronavirus puts food supply workers at risk
Food suppliers face shutdowns as workers are infected with coronavirus 02:09

Coronavirus has stricken workers at nearly half of Wayne Farms' 11 chicken processing plants and two of its 17 feed mills and hatcheries in the southeastern U.S., the poultry producer confirmed on Wednesday.

However, the Continental Grain Co. subsidiary declined to specify the number of employees who tested positive for the virus nor identify the affected sites, with a spokesperson saying the situation is "constantly changing."

"We are communicating directly with our workforce to make sure everyone is informed and proper procedures are being followed," a Wayne Farms' spokesperson said Wednesday in an email to CBS MoneyWatch.

With annual sales exceeding $2 billion, the Oakwood, Georgia-based processor is the country's seventh-largest poultry producer and employs more than 9,000 people in five states: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi and North Carolina.

According to local media reports, Wayne Farms workers tested positive for the virus at two poultry facilities in Alabama, including one worker at the company's plant in Dothan and a "small number" in Jack

The company spokesperson called "inaccurate" a Reuters report on Monday that cited an employee and union leader at its plant in Decatur, Alabama, as saying workers recently had to pay the company 10 cents a day to buy masks.

"We are not charging employees for face masks. We are providing masks where we have them available, and are encouraging employees to provide/wear their own facial coverings until we have supplies of these masks available for all locations," the spokesperson said. "We are sourcing more masks now which will be available at all plants in the near future as soon as we procure them."

Demand for live chickens skyrockets as people fear running out of food 02:25

The company is among many businesses facing hurdles trying to operate amid the pandemic, with the task of deboning chickens and cutting up pork and beef typically low-paying work done in close quarters with others. Still, companies are adding protections such as intensified cleaning and taking the temperature of workers before they're allowed to enter facilities.

Smithfield Foods on Sunday indefinitely suspended operations at a pork plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, that accounts for as much as 5% of U.S. pork production. On Wednesday, South Dakota Department of Health officials confirmed 80 new cases of Smithfield employees. Another 126 cases connected to those Smithfield Foods employees brings to 644 cases connected to the plant, according to a spokesperson for South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem.

Smithfield plans to close its dry sausage and bacon plant in Cudahy, Wisconsin, and Martin City, Missouri, facilities beginning later this week. The Cudahy plant will shut down for two weeks while the second facility relies on raw materials from its facility in Sioux Falls, and will start running again once the plant in South Dakota is given clearance from local, state and federal officials, it said.

"The Cudahy and Martin City facilities are located in close proximity to urban areas in which community spread of COVID-19 has been prevalent. A small number of employees at both plants have tested positive for COVID-19," Smithfield said in a statement.

The plant closures are also adding to the woes of U.S. hog farmers, who are finding the cost of feeding market-ready swine no longer feasible amid reduced demand from the backed-up processing facilities. 

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