Tyson Foods to increase virus testing in US meat plants

FILE - In this Oct. 28, 2009, file photo, a Tyson Foods, Inc., truck is parked at a food warehouse in Little Rock, Ark. Tyson Foods plans 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% of all beef, pork and chicken in the U.S., on Wednesday, July 29, 2020, said it will randomly test employees who have no symptoms as well as those with symptoms

Tyson Foods, which has already tested more than one-third of its workforce for COVID-19, on Thursday announced a series of additional steps it will take, including more testing of workers at all of its meat-processing plants. 

Based in Springdale, Arkansas, the company said the new initiatives were designed with the assistance of outside medical experts.

Tyson has reported outbreaks at many of its plants, and last month reported that 371 workers at its poultry processing plant in Noel had tested positive for COVID-19 out of 1,142 employees who were tested either by the company or by health care officials. That is 32.4%.

McDonald County has been a hotspot recently for the virus, with 974 cases and seven deaths reported as of Thursday. Tyson officials have not released results of testing at Monett. Lawrence County has reported 158 cases and two deaths; Barry County has reported 180 cases and 1 death.

Nationwide, there have been more than 4.3 million cases of COVID-19 reported, and more than 150,000 deaths.

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

'On the offensive'

"We believe launching a new, strategic approach to monitoring and adding the health staff to support it will help further our efforts to go on the offensive against the virus,” Donnie King, Tyson Foods group president and chief administrative officer, said in the statement on Thursday. “Adding more resources and technologies reinforces our commitment to protecting our team members, their families and plant communities.” 

Tyson also said it has "likely been involved in more testing than any other company in the country." Fewer than 1% of Tyson's U.S. workforce of 120,000 currently have active COVID-19 cases, the company also said.

Now it will test thousands more workers every week across all of its plants and other operations.

Among the new initiatives:

• Employees who have no symptoms may be selected for testing based on an algorithm-model selection process. The number tested each week will be adjusted according to factors such as the number of positive cases involving plant workers, as well as cases within the community.

• The company will conduct health screenings daily as team members arrive for work. Those found to have symptoms will be tested using CDC guidance. Employees who have come into close contact with co-workers (or non-Tyson personnel in the workplace) who have symptoms or have tested positive also will be tested, according to CDC guidance.

• Tyson will create the position of a chief medical officer and add almost 200 nurses and administrative support personnel to supplement the more than 400 people who are currently part of the company’s health services team. The additional nurses will conduct on-site testing and assist with case management.

“What we’re adopting is a strategic, ongoing approach to combating COVID-19,” King said.  “It involves weekly testing of team members at our facilities to monitor for the presence of the virus. By using data science to test a statistically sound sample of team members, we have a better chance of staying ahead of any potential virus spread and protecting our teams and communities.”

Marc Perron, president of the UFCW, which represents many Tyson workers, said they support the initiative.

"UFCW is urging all companies in the industry to follow Tyson's lead and take immediate action to expand COVID monitoring as we work to flatten the curve," he said.

Food concerns

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 also 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, also 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 Associated Press contributed to this report. 

Andy Ostmeyer is the metro editor at the Globe. His email address is aostmeyer@joplinglobe.com.