The JBS beef processing plant in Cactus on Jan. 28, 2020. Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune
State health officials confirmed Tuesday that they are investigating an outbreak of the new coronavirus at the JBS Beef packing plant in the Texas Panhandle, part of ongoing efforts to monitor major meat processing plants as the pandemic continues to threaten food supply chains.
Earlier this month, the Department of State Health Services conducted an epidemiological investigation in Shelby County that identified a cluster of 14 coronavirus cases and two related deaths that were “in some manner” tied to employees of a Tyson Foods facility.
Now, a department spokeswoman said, an “environmental assessment team” is being sent to Moore County to advise on ways the massive meatpacking plant, which processes a significant portion of the nation’s beef, can curb the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new strain of the coronavirus.
The investigation follows the shuttering of the company’s meat packing plants in other states because of local outbreaks. Moore County, near the Oklahoma border, has one of the highest rates of infection per capita in the state. (Some local leaders attribute it to rapid testing.)
After a call with Tyson Foods officials, the health department asked the company to enact additional protections for employees at its facility near the Louisiana border, including monitoring all individuals entering the facility for both fever and other COVID-19 related symptoms, and to increase its sanitizing as part of the transportation the company provides for workers.
In an April 10 letter, health commissioner John Hellerstedt wrote to officials for Tyson Foods that the department was “not currently seeking a temporary closure” of the facility but asked the company to provide written confirmation it would take additional actions beyond those previously outlined by the facility in a letter to the state.
“I appreciate the commitment Tyson Foods has expressed in our call and in writing,” Hellerstedt wrote. “We know these actions are effective against the virus, and strict adherence will result in a healthier Texas.
Representatives for JBS Beef and Tyson Foods did not immediately respond to requests for comment.