Sanderson Farms Inc. confirmed Monday that an employee at its McComb, Miss., processing plant tested positive for novel coronavirus (COVID-19). All of the company’s locations, including McComb, continue normal operations.
This individual’s work area was contained to one small processing table. “Upon learning of this case, we took a number of immediate steps to protect the health and safety of our employees,” said Joe F. Sanderson Jr., chairman and chief executive officer of Sanderson Farms. “Following [Centers for Disease Control & Prevention] and local health department guidelines and procedures developed in consultation with an infectious disease physician, we identified six individuals in the work area who could be at risk, and those employees, along with the infected employee, have been sent home to self-quarantine with pay.
“We also conducted a thorough cleaning of the affected work area as well as all of our other facilities over the weekend. We notified all other personnel at the McComb plant of the confirmed case and will continue to work in close partnership with the local health department in McComb and the Mississippi State Department of Health for guidance. We will follow these same procedures if other employees at any of our facilities test positive for the virus.”
Sanderson Farms has implemented a site infection control plan at all its locations under which company health professionals have been trained to identify employees with symptoms of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. Recognizing that very few of Sanderson Farms’ employees can do their jobs remotely, the company’s processing and production sites are continuously evaluating staffing needs as well as on-site health and safety measures to manage through this pandemic.
Sanderson added, “Like health care and pharmaceutical providers, the food supply chain is critical to ensure the well-being of residents of the United States and other countries, and federal government officials have encouraged food companies to continue operating. There are no known indications that novel coronavirus can be transmitted through food. Our first and most important priority is the health and well-being of our employees, and we continue to take precautionary measures to mitigate the spread of illness. We are actively monitoring this evolving situation to ensure we are operating in the safest manner possible.”
Jayson Lusk, head of the agricultural economics department at Purdue University, noted that some issues could be compounded if plants see widespread sickness of workers. “One thing that makes me nervous even about temporary closures, if large scale, is the animals that have been placed to be market weight in the next few weeks. While feedlot cattle can likely remain on feed a few weeks longer with relatively small changes in profitability, that is less true for hogs, and particularly chickens. Meat supply chains are optimized for efficiency and low-cost production, not necessarily for flexibility and resiliency,” he said in a recent posting.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture also recently updated its Coronavirus Resource Page with answers to frequently asked questions. Particularly, USDA stated that the Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS) is not aware of any reports at this time of human illnesses that would suggest that COVID-19 can be transmitted by food or food packaging.
The Food & Drug Administration also recently said it would not encourage companies to recall any food at plants if a worker was confirmed with the virus.
USDA said FSIS in-plant personnel who are ill with COVID-19 or any other illness will be excluded from work activities that could create unsanitary conditions (coughing or sneezing on product). COVID-19 is thought to spread mainly from person to person through respiratory droplets that can land in the mouths or noses of people nearby.
The USDA page also explained that coronaviruses are enveloped viruses, meaning they are one of the easiest types of viruses to kill with the appropriate disinfectant product. All FSIS-regulated establishments are required to have sanitation standard operating procedures (sanitation SOPs), which are written procedures an establishment develops and implements to prevent direct contamination or adulteration of product. It is the establishment’s responsibility to implement the procedures as written in the sanitation SOPs. The establishment must maintain daily records sufficient to document the implementation and monitoring of the sanitation SOPs and any corrective action taken. FSIS verifies that regulated establishments adhere to the procedures in place.
“The same sanitary procedures that establishments are already following to protect food safety will also help prevent the spread of respiratory illnesses like COVID-19,” USDA noted.
In the event of a diagnosed COVID-19 illness, FSIS will follow, and is encouraging establishments to follow, the recommendations of local public health authorities regarding notification of potential contacts. “FSIS will keep the lines of communication open so we can address the evolving situation,” the resource page stated.