With the weight of the federal Defense Production Act behind them, meat processing plants are mostly remaining open during the coronavirus pandemic despite a number of documented virus outbreaks.
While helping farmers stay solvent and allowing grocery stores to keep their shelves stocked, the meat processors are also having an unintended effect on the battle to halt the spread of the COVID-19 respiratory disease.
That impact has been on display in Bowling Green, where a large group of immigrants from the Asian country of Myanmar, or Burma, is believed to factor into Warren County’s recent spike in confirmed cases of the virus.
According to Kentucky Office for Refugees figures, a total of 849 Burmese immigrants and refugees arrived in Bowling Green from 2015 to 2019. Many of them gravitate to working at facilities such as the Perdue Farms chicken processing plant in Ohio County, where dozens of positive cases have been discovered.
“We tested all of the nearly 1,200 associates at our Cromwell (Ohio County) facility on May 6 and around 7 percent were positive,” Perdue Farms Director of Corporate Communications Diana Souder said in an email.
Because dozens of Bowling Green’s Burmese community work at the Ohio County plant, the positive cases have had negative results for Warren County, which has now reported more confirmed cases – 950 as of Tuesday – than any Kentucky county except Jefferson.
“It’s my understanding that the huge outbreak at Perdue was a major factor in our recent testing results,” Warren County Judge-Executive Mike Buchanon said in a text message.
Buchanon said those positive tests led to expanded testing in targeted neighborhoods, which uncovered more cases of the virus.
“Those testing sites were the reason we were able to locate so many families – children included – who had COVID-19 and get them lined up with medical professionals and the health department,” Buchanon said. “They were able to quarantine these individuals and families and stop further spread.”
Albert Mbanfu, executive director of the International Center of Kentucky located in Bowling Green, said “around 80 percent” of the city’s refugees have now been tested.
“Quite a good number” of those who work at Perdue have tested positive, Mbanfu said, but he isn’t sure where the infections originated.
“It’s difficult to know if they took it to the plant or if they caught it there and brought it back,” Mbanfu said.
Part of the problem, Mbanfu reasoned, stems from the work ethic of those Burmese immigrants and refugees who often carpool to the Perdue plant.
“They like to work,” Mbanfu said. “If they’re sick, they’ll try to hide their illness and just go to work.”
Ohio County Judge-Executive David Johnston admits meat processing plants like Perdue lend themselves to the spread of disease.
“They work in close proximity at the plant,” Johnston said. “It’s hard to do social distancing.”
But Johnston says Perdue, the largest private employer in Ohio County, faces such strict scrutiny from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that he believes it is unlikely that the virus originated there.
“It seems to be traced back to the Burmese community in Bowling Green,” Johnston said. “They ride together in carpools, and they live in close communities. It most likely started there. That’s my opinion, not a scientific fact.”
Although President Donald Trump has invoked the Defense Production Act to protect meat processing plants and prevent food shortages, the Ohio County Perdue plant has still drawn scrutiny.
“We have provided recommendations on Perdue’s COVID-19 plan and policies, based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kentucky-specific meatpacking guidance,” said Anya Weber, a public information officer for the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services. “However, there has not been any particular action taken as the Kentucky Department for Public Health and its Food Safety branch does not permit or regulate the Perdue Farms facility.
“The USDA is primarily tasked with maintaining the safety of the food product that is produced.”
Perdue’s Souder says the company has responded to the coronavirus crisis.
“Beginning in early March, we implemented extensive incremental cleaning and safety measures, including increased cleaning and sanitizing, restricting travel and nonessential visitors, social distancing where possible, temperature checks, and face masks,” Souder said. “We have installed temporary partitions between associates on the production line where social distancing isn’t possible.”
Johnston believes that Perdue, between the scrutiny it gets from the USDA and the added measures taken as a result of the pandemic, is “definitely going in the right direction” in addressing the crisis.
“The USDA is on top of them and all meat processors,” Johnston said. “They’re going to be ahead of the game in sanitation.”