By Jacob Bunge
This article is being republished as part of our daily
reproduction of WSJ.com articles that also appeared in the U.S.
print edition of The Wall Street Journal (May 16, 2020).
The coronavirus will likely hamper U.S. meat production for
months, as new safety measures and reduced staffing slow plant
operations, said the head of the biggest U.S. beef producer.
JBS USA Holdings Inc., which slaughters 23% of the country's
cattle and produces nearly one-fifth of its pork, is revamping
plant operations to space workers farther apart while about 10% of
its workforce has been sent home because of their higher risk from
Covid-19, Chief Executive Andre Nogueira said.
"We will not be able to go to full capacity anytime soon as we
fight this virus because of all the changes we have implemented,"
Mr. Nogueira said in an interview.
JBS, a unit of Brazilian meat conglomerate JBS SA, last month
closed several of its beef and pork plants around the country after
coronavirus infections spread among plant workers, prompting calls
from union and local health officials to shut down facilities.
Other meat companies, including Tyson Foods Inc., Smithfield Foods
Inc. and Cargill Inc., also temporarily closed plants.
President Trump in late April issued an executive order aimed at
speeding meat plants' reopening, and easing the coronavirus's
disruption to the U.S. food system. With meatpacking plants closed
and slowed, U.S. supermarkets are dealing with shortages and
surging meat costs. Hog farmers, unable to send livestock to
processing plants, have turned to euthanizing them by the
thousands. R-Calf USA, a cattle rancher group, this week estimated
that around 500,000 cattle were backed up on feedlots and unable to
"Will we have all the items in the grocery store? Probably not
for the next several weeks, but at this point I am not concerned
about a shortage of protein," Mr. Nogueira said. He said JBS is
selling more meat domestically rather than exporting it.
JBS has reopened plants that it closed in Pennsylvania,
Colorado, Minnesota and Wisconsin. So far, those are operating at
70% to 95% of their normal capacity, a company spokesman said.
Hundreds of JBS plant employees have stayed home in recent
weeks, either because they were sick or out of concern for their
health, according to company and union officials. Mr. Nogueira said
safety measures the company is putting into its plants, such as
air-purification systems equipped with ultraviolet lights, are
helping employees feel better about coming in to work as plants
Around 6,000 JBS employees -- those over the age of 60 or who
have health conditions that put them at greater risk from the
coronavirus -- have been directed to stay home and are being paid,
Mr. Nogueira said.
JBS has hired 1,000 new workers in response to the coronavirus
in recent weeks, he said. Roughly half of those are doing extra
cleaning in break rooms, hallways, bathrooms and other high-traffic
areas, while the other half are teaching workers how to use
protective gear and are monitoring social distancing.
In Greeley, Colo., JBS runs one of its biggest beef plants near
the company's U.S. corporate headquarters. The company closed the
plant for about two weeks as Covid-19 infections spread among
employees, reopening April 24. Since then, infections among plant
employees have climbed to 319 this week from 245, according to
state health department data. JBS employs more than 3,000 people at
the plant. A spokeswoman for the local United Food and Commercial
Workers International Union representing JBS's Greeley plant
employees said enforceable laws to protect workers are needed,
along with federal work safety inspections.
A JBS spokesman attributed most of the new cases to
state-sponsored tests while the plant was closed. The company is
offering free testing to Greeley plant employees and is screening
them for symptoms before their shifts, he said.
JBS's beef-processing plant in Souderton, Pa., was the first
major U.S. meatpacking facility to close in early April following a
Covid-19 outbreak among workers. After reopening the week of April
20, no new cases have been confirmed among JBS employees, according
to county health and union officials.
Wendell Young, president of the local UFCW chapter that
represents JBS employees, said closing the facility stopped the
virus's spread there and gave time to space out workers and put up
barriers between their stations.
JBS's Mr. Nogueira said it wasn't clear whether shutting down
the company's plants helped slow the coronavirus's spread in
communities like Souderton and Greeley, because cases continued to
increase even when the plants were shut down. He said closing the
plants nevertheless was the right decision and that the company
could still close more facilities if needed.
Write to Jacob Bunge at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
May 16, 2020 02:47 ET (06:47 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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