A link missing from the chain: A conversation with JBS
JBS Head of Corporate Affairs Cameron Bruett said the meat packing industry has made tremendous gains in efficiency through the use of technology, process engineering and workflow management. However, without the workforce, who are both skilled and specialized, the complex beef carcass couldn’t make it to the grocery case.
It is those workers a closure is meant to protect during the spread of COVID-19. Social distancing is possible to achieve in some parts of the beef processing facility but more difficult in others, especially with the chain speed required. The closure has forced the hand of cattle feeders and producers as cattle remain on feed and trucks are parked. Social distancing, the foremost recommendation to squelch the spread of COVID-19, is possible to achieve in some parts of the beef processing facility but more difficult in others, especially with the chain speed required to meet demand efficiently.
Bruett, in an exclusive interview, said when the first critical infrastructure guidelines came out, the Centers for Disease Control recommended social distancing, frequent handwashing, covering coughs, staying home if ill, and self-quarantine for those exposed to a person who has tested positive. He said those recommendations were implemented immediately upon their release in all plants across the company’s operations — a total of 10 beef plants, 31 poultry plants and 11 pork facilities (five fresh and six value added) across the U.S. alone.
“We saw fairly early on we were going to have to take more aggressive measures, you know you can’t halve a carcass from home, telecommuting isn’t really an option for these facilities,” he said.
JBS began gathering personal protective equipment (PPE), hand-held thermometers, thermal imaging technology and taking other steps to encourage sick workers from coming to work. Part of that was a $600 bonus on the red meat side of the business, telling employees to stay home if they were sick. If workers did fall ill with COVID-19, they were still eligible for the bonus.
“This is a pretty pernicious virus in the sense that many people are asymptomatic who carry it,” he said.
On March 24, JBS received confirmation of the first reported positive case and at that time, he said, there were already 100 cases in the county.
“It’s a tough fight we’re all in together and we try to do everything possible can in our facilities to create a safe working environment,” he said. “Given the efforts we’ve started five weeks ago, we now have the ability at every JBS USA and Pilgrims facility to temperature test everyone before they enter the facility. We have masks, face shields, balaclavas at all of our facilities and if not all three, we have at minimum face masks at all facilities.”
Masks, in tandem with increased sanitation, plexiglass dividers on the line, additional spacing where possible on the line, temperature checking, social distancing where it’s possible like break rooms, cafeteria and locker rooms, staggered shift starts, tents to create additional space are in use.
Prior to the plant’s temporary closure, Bruett said they were in constant consultation with the county and state health authorities. The local order, which is aggressive in comparison to the recommendations made to the South Dakota Smithfield plant, would require the plant to close indefinitely, something that he said is impossible to comply with. Testing, with the support of Vice President Mike Pence, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, Sen. Corey Gardner, and others, was announced prior to the local health order. The order, as written, is in direct conflict with the new CDC guidelines and, to his understanding, is to be rescinded or made more applicable to the guidelines. It was later released though JBS continues to work with local health authorities to reach a reasonable solution. The CDC toured the facility recently and Bruett said they were complimentary of the plant and the actions taken.
“It’s in everyone’s, especially in the federal government, best interest to get that facility up and running,” he said. “It is a critical facility, responsible for 3 to 5 percent of beef production in the United States. A lot of our workers want to work and it’s incumbent upon us to better communicate some of those safety measures we’ve taken in that plant to ensure a safe working environment, and get that facility back to producing food. I’m confident we’ll get there, I’m confident Smithfield will get there, I’m confident Tyson will get there. These facilities are so critical to the nation right now. Food has always been something folks take for granted and we’ve already seen one retail panic, we certainly don’t want to see another, and I don’t think that we will.”
With the Greeley JBS facility shuttered, a link has fallen out of the chain for feeders and cow calf producers. For cattle already purchased, JBS has either diverted or delayed cattle coming into the facility though all pre-confirmed commitments to producers are being honored regardless of which action was taken.
“We don’t have a business without them,” Bruett said of livestock producers, many of whom are focused on — and furious about — the packer’s margins. “We’ve always been a committed livestock buyer on any cash market, with negotiated contracts. We have NCBA right here in our home state where we’re headquartered, we have a great relationship with producers all across the country, but here in Colorado especially. We have a special, longstanding relationship with Five Rivers and the feeding industry and they’re all absolute partners in this. These are just unprecedented, turbulent times.”
At Five Rivers Cattle, CEO Mike Thoren, said outgoing trucks are at a virtual standstill.
Thoren said he has some opportunities to be able to feed cattle longer, but, depending on the length of the closure of the JBS plant, the drastic steps to place cattle on a maintenance ration could be necessary. He said cattle become unmarketable at 1,550 pounds.
“This is something that is serious,” he said. “We need this plant to come back on when it’s scheduled by April 24. If this prolongs and Fort Morgan has more problems, this is incredibly serious for Colorado agriculture and the High Plains, and the whole beef industry.”
In the short term, he said, Five Rivers can deal with it. Very few cattle are leaving Five Rivers’ three Colorado yards at this point. Thoren said cattlemen should contact elected representatives to encourage them to support JBS in their efforts to reopen and return Fort Morgan’s Cargill facility to capacity.
“Help these plant workers that are doing an important job, a noble job, and make sure that’s recognized and make sure this is not played out as a corporate villain,” he said. “This is a serious issue and we need to come together and solve this.”
Bruett said JBS has gone from a period of being able to sell every cut of meat produced with plants running at full capacity to almost overnight, having shipments returned because retail was satiated, and they were without food service customers. The goal, he said, is to open the plant as quickly as possible, ensuring the safety of the workforce.
The cattle industry, the packing industry, and JBS have not been immune to the COVID-19 crisis, he said, and they’re left balancing opening the plant, the safety of workers, and providing food and a viable outlet for producers.
“What we do is really critical and we need our producer partners to succeed and thrive in this environment as well because it’s an interconnected chain and we all have to play our part to help the country get through this,” he said. “I know our producers are up for the challenge, we’re certainly up for the challenge, we just need the support of everyone.”
Bruett said the mainstream media, in what he referred to as their quest for a sensational story and search for a villain, has posed additional challenges for the company. Now is the time, he said, to come together and close the gaps for the good of the country and industry.
The biggest challenge, he said, facing those in agriculture and other infrastructure that has been deemed critical, is the fear of infection within the workforce. Bruett said plants located in communities with high infection rates, regardless of whether or not there are confirmed cases at the plant itself, are experiencing high absentee rates. Putting into perspective the interventions in place to ensure the safety of workers, he said, is increasingly difficult between the political climate and alarming headlines.
“This is going to be our home long after this coronavirus challenge is behind us and the media, has, once again, lost interest in agriculture, meatpacking, and food,” he said. “We’re still going to be here and committed to the community. We’re going to do whatever we can to take care of people.” ❖
— Gabel is an assistant editor and reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at email@example.com or (970) 768-0024.