CDC report on Smithfield Foods highlights communication breakdowns, offers dozens of recommendations

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An earlier version of this story contained incorrect information about the number of cases connected to Smithfield. The actual number is 206 and the story has been corrected.

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is calling on Smithfield Foods to make significant changes at its Sioux Falls pork processing plant, which has been shut down for more than a week due to a COVID-19 outbreak. A report released Thursday morning also appeared to show a lack of transparency from Smithfield.

As of Thursday, Smithfield remains one of the top COVID-19 hot spots in the country, according to New York Times data. The South Dakota Department of Health confirmed more than 800 workers have tested positive; 206 COVID-19 cases have also been connected to the plant, as of Thursday. At least two deaths have also been connected to the plant.

Of the 15 pages in report, 11 were filled with recommendations from the CDC to Smithfield, including beginning a process of hierarchy of controls, social distancing, better screening, extended sick leave, increased hygiene, new policies, increased hand washing, training and more personal protective equipment. You can see a copy of the report below.

“A combination of control measures with ongoing education and training will be useful in reducing or eliminating transmission in the workplace,” the report said. “These recommendations are intended for this specific Smithfield plant, but broader interim recommendations for meat and poultry processing industries are in development.”

According to the report, the team of CDC investigations including veterinary epidemiologists, an Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer, an industrial hygienist, and a Laboratory Leadership Service Office toured the plant and found several problem areas including a lack of hand sanitization.

“We saw hand sanitizer dispensers located in limited locations throughout the plant, notably at the entrances to the building and within cafeterias and break rooms. Plant management indicated that more hand sanitizer dispensers will be added as COVID-19 prevention measures,” the report said.

Another problem CDC investigators found was that they weren’t able to identify important demographic information about the workforce.

“Limiting our ability to understand the diversity of the employees. However, plant management reported that there were approximately 40 different languages spoken by employees in the plant and that English, Spanish, Kunama, Swahili, Nepali, Tigrinya, Amharic, French, Oromo, and Vietnamese are the top 10 languages,” the report said. “We were also unable to obtain information about the workstations of confirmed positive cases. This type of information could provide a better understanding of what workplace factors may have contributed to the spread of COVID-19 among employees. Key demographic and workstation information was requested from the company to help answer some of these questions in the future.”

The CDC said more recommendations could come if the demographic and workstation information is released.

South Dakota Department of Health Secretary Kim Malsam-Rysdon said at Thursday’s media briefing that CDC couldn’t evaluate workstations because there were no workers in the building.

The language barriers appeared to be one of the key issues with the plant, with Smithfield only distributing English materials to those with a fever or other symptoms.

“We understand that if an employee was found to have a fever or symptoms consistent with COVID-19, they were given an informational packet (in English) and instructed to return home,” the report said.

The report laid out 8 steps Smithfield is supposedly taking:

  1. Developing and finalizing standard operating procedures for new infection prevention and control measures, especially related to supplementary disinfection of high-touch areas.
  2. Increasing engagement with the Beekeeper application. We were informed that approximately 1,400 employees have signed on to receive text messages from this system.
  3. Completing installation of plexiglass barriers in close contact workstations.
  4. Increasing the number of hand sanitizer dispensers in the plant to 3,500 (i.e., roughly 1 per employee).
  5. Installing over 100 additional time clocks to prevent bottlenecks.
  6. Promoting increased adoption of mass communication methods to communicate COVID-19 prevention and informational messages to employees. We learned that they are planning to start this process during the plant closure.
  7. Having designated staff walk around lines to provide hand sanitization to line employees every 30 minutes.
  8. Relaxing sick leave policies related to COVID-19. Eliminating premiums, copays, and waiting periods for COVID-19 testing.

Read all of the recommendations in the full report lower in this story.

The South Dakota Department of Health is requiring the company to submit a plan of action prior to re-opening.

“For each recommendation, please indicate a timeframe for implementation. If a recommendation cannot be implemented or a different solution is proposed, please provide the justification,” Malsam-Rysdon and state epidemiologist Dr. Joshua Clayton wrote in a letter to Smithfield’s CEO.

Malsam-Rysdon and Clayton also asked for a date when the plan will re-open.

“My team at the Department of Health is going to continue with Smithfield,” Noem said at a Thursday media briefing.

The Sioux Falls plant supplies nearly 130 million servings of food per week, or about 18 million servings per day, to the United States, according to Smithfield.

The plant in Sioux Falls processes fresh pork, bacon, deli meats, hot dogs and smoked meats. It employs 3,700 people in Sioux Falls.

Smithfield purchased John Morrell & Co in Sioux Falls, SD, in 1995. The facility was built in 1909.

SD State Historical Society – Archives Department

As KELOLAND News has reported, over the years the company has talked about both expanding and closing its Sioux Falls meat packing plant.

In fact, when South Dakota Governor George Mickelson died in a plane crash in 1993, he was returning from a trip to try to save the plant.

Smithfield is the country’s largest pork processor and hog producer.

The company had to shut down plants in Wisconsin and Missouri in response to the Sioux Falls shutdown, Smithfield CEO Kenneth M. Sullivan said in a statement last week.

“The closure of our Martin City plant is part of the domino effect underway in our industry. It highlights the interdependence and interconnectivity of our food supply chain,” Sullivan said. “Our country is blessed with abundant livestock supplies, but our processing facilities are the bottleneck of our food chain. Without plants like Sioux Falls running, other further processing facilities like Martin City cannot function.”

While the plant closed indefinitely after a request from Gov. Kristi Noem (R-SD) and Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken, the company has tried to re-open.

“This is why our government has named food and agriculture critical infrastructure sectors and called on us to maintain operations and normal work schedules. For the security of our nation, I cannot understate how critical it is for our industry to continue to operate unabated,” Sullivan said.

In a statement to KELOLAND News, Keira Lombardo, executive vice president of corporate affairs and compliance at Smithfield Foods, said the company has received the report.

“We will thoroughly and carefully examine the report point by point and respond in full once our assessment is complete,” Lombardo said.

In his statement last week, Sullivan said his company is doing everything in its power to protect its workforce.

“This starts with stringent and detailed processes and protocols that follow the strict guidance of the CDC and extends to things like the use of thermal scanning, personal protective equipment and physical barriers, to name a few. We are also being explicit with employees: ‘Do not report to work if you are sick or exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms. You will be paid,’” Sullivan said.

KELOLAND News contacted the United States Department of Agriculture regarding the plant closure earlier in the month.

“USDA is closely monitoring the situation with the Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota,” a USDA spokesperson told KELOLAND News. “We are not aware of any reports at this time of human illnesses that suggest COVID-19 can be transmitted by food or food packaging. However, it is always important to follow good hygiene practices (i.e., wash hands and surfaces often, separate raw meat from other foods, cook to the right temperature, and refrigerate foods promptly) when handling or preparing foods.”

This week, Noem also eased restrictions this week on pork producers in South Dakota, who are being hit hard by the shutdown.

On Thursday, Noem said she knows there is a stigma with the ag industry and asking for help.

“You can talk to someone, deal with anxiety, or lack of hope, you do not have to go through this alone,” she said.

Noem pointed to resources and encouraged farmers to even reach out to her personally.

Avera Health also has a free, 24/7, confidential Farm and Rural Stress Hotline at 1-800-691-4336.

The CDC came to Sioux Falls last week. According to a spokesperson, the agency has been providing disease detectives to investigate the burden of the outbreak.

“Additionally, CDC will provide technical assistance regarding safety of the workforce and decontamination of the plant to return it to operation. CDC will also work with state health officials to implement safety practices for critical infrastructure workers,” a spokesperson said in a statement to KELOLAND News. “CDC is committed to working with state health officials to protect the health of the meatpacking plant’s workforce and local community by ensuring operations at the plant are conducted safely.”

Noem’s office released the report to the public. She issued a statement Thursday morning.

“I want to thank Vice President Pence, Secretary of Agriculture Perdue, and the CDC for prioritizing the situation at Smithfield Foods in Sioux Falls,” Noem said in a statement. “Their partnership has been critical to the work that we’ve done to get this cluster under control and safeguard the health of this workforce. My team at the Department of Health will continue to work with Smithfield and offer any assistance we can to help them implement these CDC recommendations, so they can safely reopen this plant as soon as possible.”

TenHaken said his office is looking at the report as well.

“We are reviewing the CDC’s recommendations and remain ready to assist Smithfield and the State in safely resuming operations as soon as possible,” TenHaken said in a statement.

Jason McDonald, a spokesperson for the CDC, said the agency is committed to working with states and businesses to protect essential workers.

A team of six CDC experts concluded part of their work to investigate an outbreak of COVID-19 in a meat-processing facility in South Dakota. The team evaluated existing practices in the plant and developed, in partnership with the South Dakota Department of Health and the plant’s owner, recommendations that can be used to decrease potential spread of COVID-19 in the plant. The findings can be found in a memo that CDC provided to the South Dakota Department of Health.

Recommendations were provided to help management, employees, the union, the South Dakota Department of Health, and strategic community partners to potentially limit virus transmission in the plant. The recommendations are steps that the plant may want to consider implementing to address the conditions identified at the plant. The recommendations are discretionary and are not required or mandated by CDC.

CDC is committed to working with states and businesses to protect workers essential to supplying America with needed goods and services.

Jason McDonald, CDC Spokesperson

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