Tyson Foods said Wednesday it is suspending operations indefinitely at its Waterloo pork processing plant.
The Arkansas company also said it will offer COVID-19 testing to all of its 2,800 employees at the plant while it's closed.
The decision to close the plant, Tyson's largest pork processing facility, comes after employees at the company's Waterloo and Dakota City, Nebraska, plants have died from COVID-19.
Chris Schwartz, a Black Hawk County supervisor, said the closure is "good news for the employees and for the health and well being of the entire community."
Schwartz said he hoped the action came "soon enough" to prevent more workers from becoming ill.
More than 180 infections had been confirmed among plant workers earlier this week, the Associated Press reported, and officials expect that number to rise.
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Gov. Kim Reynolds said the state will help with employee testing, which she believes will begin Friday.
Tyson said the Waterloo plant had been running at reduced levels of production due to worker absenteeism. A decision to restart the plant depends on the outcome of the testing, among other factors, the company said.
The Board of Health in Black Hawk County passed a resolution Tuesday that called for the plant to close. As of Wednesday, the county had a total of 379 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and two deaths. The board's resolution called the plant the "largest single source" of infection in the county.
Schwartz said he believed temporarily closing the plant and conducting widespread testing of workers, along with taking added safety precautions, could prevent a larger disruption of the nation's food supply chain.
Tyson's top concern has been for the safety of employees, said Steve Stouffer, group president of Tyson Fresh Meats, and that was "the reason we’ve implemented numerous safety measures during this challenging and unprecedented time.”
“Despite our continued efforts to keep our people safe, while fulfilling our critical role of feeding American families, the combination of worker absenteeism, COVID-19 cases and community concerns has resulted in our decision to stop production," Stouffer said in a statement.
Tyson said employees will continue to be paid while the plant is closed.
Stouffer warned that closing the plant, which can process about 19,500 hogs per day — about 4% of the U.S. pork processing capacity — would have "significant ramifications" beyond the company. Another, even larger Smithfield processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, near the Iowa border, already had closed because of a COVID-19 outbreak.
The Waterloo plant "is part of a larger supply chain that includes hundreds of independent farmers, truckers, distributors and customers, including grocers,” Stouffer said.
“It means the loss of a vital market outlet for farmers and further contributes to the disruption of the nation’s pork supply,” he said.
Iowa experts warned this week that pork producers face the possibility of euthanizing thousands of pigs with the loss of 25% of the nation's processing capacity as meatpacking plants have slowed or closed due to COVID-19.
Donnelle Eller covers agriculture, the environment and energy for the Register. Reach her at email@example.com or 515-284-8457.