Two Utah meat plants voluntarily closed after employees tested positive for COVID-19

Two Utah meatpacking plants have voluntarily closed after one or more employees tested positive for COVID-19.

A Payson facility that employs about 20 people voluntarily shut down Tuesday, said Bradie Jones, spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food. It will reopen Wednesday — with limited staffers — to process 150 animals. Then it will close for at least a week so employees can quarantine.

A second plant, in Draper, which processes about 300 animals a day, is in the middle of a 10-day shutdown, Jones said.

The two plants are significantly smaller than the JBS beef plant in Hyrum, which employs 1,400 people. Nearly 300 workers at the northern Utah facility recently tested positive for the coronavirus.

The JBS facility — the state’s largest meatpacking operation — has remained partially open, but production has dropped from its normal 2,100 animals a day to as low as 700, UDAF Commissioner Logan Wilde told the Legislature’s Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Interim Committee on Tuesday.

“They are now up to 1,200,” Wilde said, “and the goal by the end of the week is to be back up to full production."

The reduction in force at the JBS plant has caused a pause in the number of cattle that can slaughtered, forcing ranchers to keep their animals a longer time in feedlots.

Wilde told lawmakers that smaller operators are trying to fill the gap until the facility returns to full capacity.

In Salt Lake County, 17 food distribution work sites have had an outbreak sometime between March and now, said county Health Department spokesman Nicholas Rupp. An outbreak happens when two or more cases occur at a site in a 14-day period.

Of those 17 cases, six are still considered a “current outbreak." The rest are considered over, since there have been no new cases in the past two weeks.

Food distribution is the work-site category that includes meat processors, bakeries, dairies, and other food manufacturers like candy, Rupp said. But it does not include grocery stores or restaurants/food service.

Rupp said the health department releases the names of work sites with an outbreak only “if there is a public health need to do so,” such as alerting people to a possible exposure so they can watch for symptoms.

“With the food distribution outbreaks,” he said, “our contact tracers have individually notified people identified as close contacts of confirmed cases and the work sites have alerted employees to the situation, so there is no public health need to alert the general public.”