Smithfield Foods, the largest pork producer in the world, is blaming “living circumstances in certain cultures” for the huge COVID-19 outbreak at its own South Dakota plant.
There have been 725 confirmed cases among 3,700 workers at the Hong Kong-owned, Virginia-based company’s pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, according to BuzzFeed News. Smithfield closed the plant indefinitely on April 12, two days before 64-year-old worker Augustin Rodriguez died due to complications from coronavirus.
A spokesperson told BuzzFeed News, however, that “it’s hard to know what could have been done differently” at the plant, which is responsible for around 5% of the U.S.’ pork supply.
“Living circumstances in certain cultures are different than they are with your traditional American family,” the spokesperson said, considering the plant’s “large immigrant population.”
Internal communications obtained by BuzzFeed as well as interviews with workers, however, found that Smithfield made a number of missteps in measures it took to stop the virus from spreading. For example, the company only posted COVID-19 notices in English and offered a facility-wide free lunch on April 1, which resulted in personnel from all eight floors of the facility to pass through the cafeteria.
One worker who got sick told BuzzFeed News that the safety precautions were inadequate, with his job on the production line forcing him to stand close to other workers. “With how we work on the line, I would say I got sick because of them not taking safety measures,” 22-year-old Michael Bul Gayo Gatluak told BuzzFeed News. “When they had their first case, I don’t think they acted accordingly.”
Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken in early April had been pushing for a citywide stay-at-home order, but he dropped it last week, pointing to updated city data indicating that local hospitals had the capacity to handle an influx of coronavirus cases. South Dakota is one of a handful of states that hasn't issued some sort of statewide stay-at-home or shelter-in-place order.
The Sioux Falls facility has since been joined by closures of two other Smithfield facilities in Missouri and Wisconsin. Workers at the Wisconsin facility said that managers there “initially concealed the number of infections, pressured employees to avoid quarantine measures, and failed to provide any face masks or dividers,” according to an Intercept report last weekend.
But even under increased scrutiny for its conduct at its South Dakota facility, Smithfield is remaining coy about other facilities. Over the weekend, the Bladen County, North Carolina, health department confirmed positive coronavirus cases at the company’s pork processing plant in Tar Heel, the largest of its kind anywhere in the world.
The health department didn’t say how many cases there were, however, and the company told VICE News on Tuesday that it wouldn’t confirm cases at the Tar Heel plant or anywhere else out of respect for workers’ “legal privacy.”
The health department in nearby Duplin County said it hadn’t seen any positive cases associated with Smithfield. Calls to the workers’ union (UFCW Local 1208), and the Bladen County health department were not immediately returned.
Cover: In this April 9, 2020 file photo employees and family members protest outside a Smithfield Foods processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D. The plant has had an outbreak of coronavirus cases, according to Gov. Kristi Noem. (AP Photo/Stephen Groves File)