Cargill has confirmed workers at its Marshall facility have tested positive for COVID-19. The corporation won't say how many individuals have tested positive so far, but says all staff who came into contact with them are being quarantined for 14 days. The meat processing plant, which employs some 620 people, is staying open.
Marshall is the seat of Saline County, which has seen confirmed COVID-19 cases increase from 19 on April 9, to 53 on April 16. The county had an estimated population of just under 23,000 in 2018. For context, while Boone County has the most confirmed cases in the region with 87 as of April 16, that's relative to its estimated population of 180,000.
Saline County Public Health Administrator Tara Brewer declined to speak specifically about the Cargill plant, but said her department is working constantly with local plants. "Altogether, we’ve been working together as a team and doing what’s best for the employees and the workforce," Brewer said. Concerns over outbreaks at meat processing plants are compounded by the fact that the majority of plants are located in rural areas with little access to healthcare, and intensive care in particular.
Elsewhere in the state, meat processing plant workers have complained about employers not providing protective equipment, such as masks and face coverings. In response to a KBIA question during his Thursday press briefing, Governor Mike Parson said he believed plant owners should provide workers with masks. That evening, Smithfield Foods — whose workers had spoken out about a lack of protections — said it would provide staff at all of its facilities with masks going forward. The company has so far closed one of its Missouri facilities in Martin City, after the supplying plant in Sioux Falls had nearly 600 employees test positive for COVID-19.
Scott Brown is a professor of agricultural economics with the University of Missouri who researches the livestock market. "I think it's very hard to practice what we've all come to know as social distancing in these plants," Brown said. Employees often work on production lines elbow to elbow, which makes it hard to effectively isolate individuals during their shifts.
Kraft-Heinz, which owns a large processing plant in Kirksville, says it has created work pods to limit contact between workers, and is hiring temporary staff to take employees' temperatures at the door. At a Smithfield plant in Milan, Missouri, the company has installed plastic barriers between workers on the production line, according to labor organizer Axel Fuentes. Fuentes is with the Rural Community Workers Alliance, and says aside from concerns about masks, workers have complained about the company's restrictive sick leave and break policies.
The Missouri Department of Agriculture said it has been in touch with plants and that it is aware of measures, including, "seeking and receiving personal protective equipment, screening team members each day, and practicing social distancing where possible." The department says plants are not required to submit information about confirmed COVID-19 cases to its agency.