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Smithfield Foods sued over working conditions in Missouri, closes Illinois plant

Faced with a lawsuit and numerous coronavirus infections, the company says it is "proactively" suspending operations at one plant after being sued over working conditions at a different facility
Image: Smithfield Foods
The closed Smithfield Foods pork plant is seen as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Sioux Falls, S.D., on April 16, 2020.Shannon Stapleton / REUTERS

Smithfield Foods Inc., the world's largest pork processor, announced Friday it is indefinitely closing an Illinois plant next week after a "small portion" of its 1,700 employees tested positive for COVID-19.

Employees will be paid during the closure, the company said in a statement.

The Monmouth plant represents approximately 3 percent of U.S. fresh pork supplies, according to Smithfield, and also produces bacon.

The news comes one day after Smithfield was accused in a lawsuit of failing to adequately protect workers at a Missouri plant who have been forced to work "shoulder to shoulder" during the coronavirus pandemic.

Virginia-based Smithfield, owned by China's WH Group, would not say how many Illinois employees were infected with coronavirus.

The lawsuit filed Thursday in Missouri federal court claims Smithfield has created a "public nuisance" by providing inadequate protective equipment to workers at the plant in the town of Milan, refusing to give them time to wash their hands and discouraging workers who are ill from taking sick leave.

Workers have also been disciplined for covering their mouths while coughing or sneezing, because it could cause them to miss pieces of meat coming down the processing line, according to the complaint.

"Put simply, workers, their family members, and many others who live in Milan and in the broader community may die — all because Smithfield refused to change its practices in the face of this pandemic," the Rural Community Workers Alliance, a Missouri-based worker advocacy group, said in the complaint.

The group in the complaint said that conditions at the Milan plant have worsened since Smithfield shuttered other pork-processing plants in Missouri, Wisconsin and South Dakota.

Keira Lombardo, executive vice president of corporate affairs and compliance at Smithfield, denied the allegations and said "the health and safety of our employees is our top priority at all times."

"The allegations contained in the complaint are without factual or legal merit and include claims previously made against the company that have been investigated and determined to be unfounded," Lombardo said. "We look forward to aggressively defending the company in court.”

More than 200 employees became infected with the coronavirus at the South Dakota slaughterhouse, which produces 4 percent to 5 percent of the nation's pork.

The group, which was joined in the lawsuit by an anonymous employee at the Milan plant, is seeking a court order requiring Smithfield to change its practices to comply with guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and orders from state public health officials.

Tyson Foods Inc last week extended the closure of a pork slaughterhouse in Columbus Junction, Iowa, that it had shuttered due to coronavirus cases among employees. Companies like Cargill Inc, JBS USA and National Beef Packing Co have also shut U.S. meat plants.

The complaint against Smithfield says that rather than taking additional steps to protect workers at the Milan plant, the company actually sped up the processing lines and forced employees to work in cramped conditions.