Another wave of coronavirus-driven closures of meatpacking plants is unlikely because worker testing and safety practices have improved since the spring, the chief executive of beef and pork giant JBS USA Holdings Inc. said.
JBS and other major meat companies have installed automated temperature checkpoints, distributed safety gear to plant workers and installed partitions between some work stations to catch Covid-19 symptoms and prevent its spread in plants. Those moves came as thousands of employee infections in March and April forced JBS,
Tyson Foods Inc.,
Cargill Inc. and other meat companies to temporarily close plants to stem outbreaks.
“I’m pretty confident we are not going to have the size of the disruption we saw in April and May,” said JBS CEO Andre Nogueira at The Wall Street Journal’s Global Food Forum, held remotely on Monday.
The company’s efforts have helped instill some sense of security among workers in doing their daily jobs, said Mark Lauritsen, head of food processing, packing and manufacturing for the United Food & Commercial Workers Union, which represents JBS plant workers. But he warned against becoming complacent.
“In the back of our minds, we all know there’s a potential for a second wave,” Mr. Lauritsen said in an interview. “What we know about Covid-19 is that one case…can rapidly expand to hundreds.”
is performing “surveillance tests” among its processing plant workers, Mr. Nogueira said, to monitor for signs that infections might be rising among employees. The company, a unit of Brazilian meat conglomerate JBS SA, is also monitoring infection levels in communities around its plants, which can guide how much testing the company conducts among its workforce.
“The number of positives over the last two or three months in the plants has been pretty low,” Mr. Nogueira said. In some cases, he said, JBS is bringing back older workers the company had sent home with pay earlier this year due to their elevated risk of infection and serious complications from the illness.
If cases surge in a community around a plant and closing the facility would help to control the impact, JBS could again shut sites down, Mr. Nogueira said.
After widespread restaurant shutdowns last spring, combined with consumers shifting their food-buying to grocery stores, JBS labored to redirect some restaurant-bound meat products to supermarkets. The company now plans to build more flexible processing lines over time, which would allow it to shift production more easily between the two markets, Mr. Nogueira said.
JBS, Tyson and other meat companies are ramping up investment in automated meat-processing systems that could make plant workers more productive, or eventually reduce reliance on human meat cutters. Mr. Nogueira said JBS expects to invest around $200 million annually in developing such systems over the next several years.
“There’s no question more automation is coming,” he said.
—Kirk Maltais contributed to this article.
Write to Jacob Bunge at [email protected]
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