IOWA CITY, Iowa — Tyson Foods suspended operations Wednesday at an Iowa plant that is critical to the nation's pork supply but had been devastated by a growing coronavirus outbreak.
The company said that the indefinite closure of the Waterloo, Iowa, pork plant would deny a vital market to hog farmers and further disrupt the nation's meat supply. Tyson had kept the facility, its largest pork plant, open in recent days over the objections of the mayor and local elected officials.
The plant can process about 19,500 hogs per day, accounting for nearly 4% of U.S. pork processing capacity, according to the National Pork Board.
More than 180 infections had been linked to the plant earlier this week and officials expect that number to dramatically rise. The company said that mass testing of its 2,800 workers would begin later this week.
In addition to those sick, hundreds of workers had stayed home from work out of fear of catching the virus. The plant had been running at reduced production levels as a result.
The announcement comes as employers have struggled to contain the virus in large meatpacking plants, where workers toil side by side on production lines and often share crowded locker rooms, cafeterias and rides to work.
Several other packing plants have temporarily closed across the country after large outbreaks, including a Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and a JBS USA plant in Worthington, Minnesota. Others have stayed open or resumed production after brief pauses for worker testing and cleaning.
“Despite our continued efforts to keep our people safe while fulfilling our critical role of feeding American families, the combination of worker absenteeism, COVID-19 cases and community concerns has resulted in our decision to stop production,” Tyson Fresh Meats president Steve Stouffer said in a statement.
He warned that the closure would have “significant ramifications beyond our company” since it's part of a supply chain that includes farmers, truckers, distributors and grocers.
Tyson said that workers would be compensated while the plant is closed and the timing of its reopening would depend on several factors, including the outcome of COVID-19 testing of workers.
The suspension came one day after the Black Hawk County Board of Health called on the company or Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds to temporarily close the plant. The board warned that its continued operation would exacerbate the spread of the virus through the county, where confirmed cases and hospitalizations have skyrocketed in recent days.
Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart and scores of local officials had also called for a temporary shutdown, saying that the company was putting its workforce in danger. Iowa’s worker safety agency said Tuesday that it had begun an investigation at the plant.
The plant employs many blacks, Latinos and refugees, populations that comprise a hugely disproportionate share of Iowa's coronavirus cases.
The governor and the Iowa Department of Public Health had rejected calls for a closure and said they were working with Tyson to keep the plant open, even at partial capacity.
Reynolds argued Monday that the economic harm caused by meat plant closures would outweigh the health risks to workers, warning that farmers with no markets may have to euthanize their pigs.
She said Tuesday that “people are gonna get" the virus in large workplaces and that most will experience only mild or no symptoms.
Earlier this week, Tyson resumed operations at its pork processing plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa. That plant had been shut down for two weeks due to an outbreak linked to hundreds of infections and the deaths of two workers.