Mountaire Farms has announced an employee at its Selbyville processing plant has tested positive for COVID-19, the third known employee of a Delmarva chicken plant to test positive.
Mountaire officials said the employee has not been at work since March 18 and had been recovering at a local hospital. The employee was expected to have been released April 1.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with this employee and their family, and we are grateful that this individual is recovering,” said Mountaire President Phillip Plylar. “Our teams have been expecting this, and we don’t expect this to interrupt our operations.”
Mountaire officials said 15 other employees who interacted with the employee were sent home March 31. None have shown signs of illness and their temperatures were normal, a company statement said, but all will remain on a 14-day self-quarantine before they can return to work.
On March 30, two employees of Perdue Farms’ Milford plant tested positive for COVID-19. The employees were placed in self-quarantine, and the facility was closed for a day for extensive cleaning and sanitation. Perdue has also reported an employee testing positive at a Perdue plant in Georgia.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID-19 is not believed to be a food-borne pathogen and has a low risk of spread via frozen or refrigerated foods. But chicken processing plants employ a lot of people, some working in close proximity.
Industry officials say the question is not if, but when, there will be a major cluster of positive tests at one plant. With that in mind, companies have tried to get ahead of the virus.
Holly Porter, executive director of Delmarva Poultry Industry, an industry trade association, said while each company’s approach is different, most producers already have to follow U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations for sanitation and cleaning of their facilities. The change has been that the region’s major companies - Perdue, Mountaire Farms, Allen Harim, Tyson and Amick Farms - are conducting more cleaning of areas where employees congregate, such as break rooms, cafeterias and bathrooms, Porter said.
Diane Souder, spokeswoman for Perdue, said the company instituted additional safety measures in early March, including increased sanitation and extended hours for on-site wellness centers. When the Milford plant reopened March 31, the company began checking the temperature of employees before they begin work.
Cathy Bassett, spokeswoman for Mountaire, said the company created a coronavirus task force to prepare before the first case was reported in any of the states Mountaire operates in. She said hand sanitation stations have been added at all Mountaire facilities, visitors are restricted to appointment only, cleaning staffs have been increased and deep cleanings are more frequent.
“We’ve encouraged all of our employees to stay home if they’re sick, and we’ve adjusted our attendance policy so they don’t have to fear losing their jobs if they do so,” Bassett said. “We are working with high-risk employees and allowing them to work from home if their job allows. We’ve also introduced this week a special paid sick leave program for our hourly workforce, to encourage them to stay home if they’re sick.”
Souder said the two employees who tested positive in Milford would still receive their pay during quarantine and will not receive an attendance penalty.
Bassett said Mountaire has also banned domestic and international travel by its employees for the next 30 days.
Porter said the coronavirus has also changed how the companies are doing the business of chicken.
With area restaurants largely shut down, Porter said the industry is shifting its focus to grocery stores. While empty beef counters have been a common sight in grocery stores in Delmarva, Porter said the poultry industry has the capacity to move very quickly, as it takes only seven to nine weeks to grow a chicken to market, while it takes 18 months to grow beef to market. In addition, she said, poultry plants in Delmarva are looking for both full-time and part-time workers to meet growing demand.
Bassett said Mountaire has increased how often its employees can purchase chicken at discounted prices and has reduced its cafeteria costs to allow employees to take food home to their families. She said the company has donated 120,000 pounds of chicken to community groups, food pantries, nursing homes and hospitals in the Delmarva area.
“It comes down to safety and the ability to keep chicken on the shelves,” Porter said. “The food supply is so important at this time.”