US meat giant shutters beef plant for coronavirus testing

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New York (AFP)

US meatpacking giant Tyson Foods on Thursday said it would temporarily close a massive beef slaughterhouse in Washington state to test its employees for coronavirus.

The closure of the Tyson Fresh Meats facility in Pasco, Washington, which the company said produces enough beef in one day to feed four million people, comes as slaughterhouses emerge as potential hotspots for spreading the disease.

A spokeswoman for Tyson declined to say whether any workers had tested positive.

In a statement, the company said it had taken measures such as creating more space in break rooms and putting dividers between workstations, as well as checking workers' temperatures and mandating that they wear masks.

"Despite these efforts, the combination of worker absenteeism, COVID-19 case and community concerns has resulted in a collective decision to close and test all team members," Tyson Fresh Meats group president Steve Stouffer said.

Workers will get paid and be asked to self-isolate as they wait for test results, which will be used to judge when to reopen the plant, the company said.

"The closure will mean reduced food supplies and presents problems to farmers who have no place to take their livestock. It's a complicated situation across the supply chain," Stouffer wrote.

Several other slaughterhouses in the United States have closed after coronavirus broke out among the staff, including a massive pork plant in South Dakota run by Smithfield that handles four to five percent of the country's production.

JBS has shut two cattle slaughterhouses, one in Pennsylvania and the other in Colorado, while Tyson has closed a hog factory in Iowa and also announced it would close another one in Indiana to test its staff.

It's unclear if these plant shutdowns will lead to a meat shortage, particularly since many restaurants are closed or have curtailed their service.

A World Bank report on Thursday warned temporary trade restrictions at the national level could snarl supply chains for food worldwide.

While predicting generally stable agricultural prices this year, the World Bank said, "There may be problems with food availability (and price spikes) at the local level due to supply chain disruptions and border closures in response to containment strategies that may restrict food flows or movement of labor."