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Tyson Foods to increase virus testing in US meat plants

Tyson Foods announced it will to administer thousands of coronavirus tests per week at its U.S. facilities under an expanded effort to protect workers and keep plants running. 

The Springdale, Arkansas-based company, which processes about 20 per cent of all beef, pork and chicken in the U.S., will randomly test employees who have no symptoms, as well as those with symptoms. 

Workers will also be tested if they were near someone who tested positive or displayed symptoms.

The tests are on top of daily health screenings when workers arrive at Tyson’s 140 U.S. production facilities, the company said Thursday.

Tyson said it will add 200 nurses to its 400-person medical team to conduct the tests, as well as hiring a chief medical officer. Tyson developed the testing plan with Matrix Medical, a healthcare provider.

Meatpacking plants have been particularly susceptible to the coronavirus because workers often stand shoulder to shoulder carving up meat. 

In the U.S. alone, at least 16,210 meatpacking industry workers have been infected or exposed to the virus and 93 have died, the United Food and Commercial Workers said.  

United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents 24,000 of Tyson´s 120,000 U.S. workers, applauded the move and said other meat processing companies should follow Tyson’s lead.     

But Tyson’s lead came only after a number of set backs and struggles over the last several months.  

Last month, the families of three Tyson workers in Iowa who died from COVID-19 sued the company, saying it knowingly put employees at risk in the early days of the pandemic. 

The wrongful deaths lawsuit filed in Iowa, where a Tyson meat plant shut down as scores of workers tested positive, alleged that symptomatic workers were not sent home and employees who were absent were said to have the flu.

The lawsuit also alleged that workers were told not to speak about coronavirus.  

Among Tyson Foods several plants, none were as hard hit as the ones in Waterloo, Iowa. 

Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson said he first became concerned after touring the Tyson plant April 10 and witnessing inadequate social distancing and a lack of personal protective equipment. 

As hundreds of workers began getting sick or staying home out of fear, Thompson joined the mayor and scores of local officials in asking Tyson to close the plant temporarily on April 16.

But Tyson, with support from Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, waited until April 22 to announce that step after the outbreak intensified.  

An employee previously said in April that an HR work told him that he was ‘safer at work’ than ‘going out to Walmart.’ 

‘I wanted to believe to them and I needed the money at the same time so I went to work,’ the worker said told CNN. 

Tyson Foods, the largest U.S. meat supplier, told ‘We have relaxed our attendance policy and have repeatedly instructed workers to stay home if they’re sick. We have turned away team members when our temperature check reveals they have a fever and they are the referred to the local health care system for evaluation. 

In May, the company announced that 730 workers, or or 58 per cent, had tested positive for coronavirus across their workforce.          

The Tyson plant in Columbus Junction had 221 positive tests, 26 percent of its workforce, and Tyson’s Waterloo facility had 17 percent of its employees test positive at the time.

Iowa Premium Beef in Tama saw 221 positive tests, or 39 percent of its workforce. 

Around that time, Tyson Foods confirmed that 570 of its 2,244 full-time and contract workers have tested positive. 

Scott Brooks, a senior vice president who is leading Tyson´s coronavirus response, noted that testing all the workers in a plant once only gives a snapshot of that particular moment. 

Constant, random testing will give the company a clearer picture of what´s going on. 

The company will adjust the number of tests each week based on community virus levels and other factors.

‘It feels good that we´re really going to be able to get ahead of this issue,’ he said.

Tyson wouldn´t say exactly how much the effort will cost, although the company has already said it’s spending hundreds of millions of dollars fighting the virus. 

The swab tests it´s using normally sell for between $100 and $150. Brooks said the results will be available in two to three days.

The expanded testing is confined to the U.S. for now. Tyson also has plants in Thailand, China, the Netherlands, Australia and elsewhere.

Tyson’s announcement may help ease consumers´ concerns about meat, even though the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and other public health officials say there’s no evidence COVID-19 can be transmitted through food.

Still, China temporarily suspended imports from a Tyson chicken plant in Arkansas last month due to coronavirus concerns. 

Tyson won’t speculate on whether the increased testing will convince China to resume its imports.

Hector Gonzalez, Tyson´s senior vice president of human resources, said he thinks many of the changes Tyson has made – like staggered employee arrivals and breaks to give people more space – will remain even after the virus subsides.

‘They just make our business better,’ he said.   

The United States has recorded more than four million confirmed cases and a death toll of more than 150,000 fatalities.  

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