LA Daily News

140 employees test positive for coronavirus at Farmer John slaughterhouse in Vernon

A cluster of six employees had tested positive for COVID-19 in April, officials said.

At least 140 workers at the Farmer John slaughterhouse and meatpacking plant in Vernon have tested positive for the coronavirus, officials said.

The meatpacking plant, which remains operational, contacted public health officials about the 140 positive cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, Freddie Agyin, director of Vernon’s Health and Environmental Control Department, said Saturday.

Farmer John began to offer onsite testing for its employees after six workers had tested positive for the disease in the plant’s ham deboning department in mid-April, Agyin said. The plant has some 1,700 employees, he said.

After the discovery of the cluster, Agyin and other health officials had visited the plant in April and found its response satisfactory.

Farmer John had told all employees who have tested positive and their co-workers who may been exposed to stay home. Before entering the plant, workers had their temperatures taken. Workers were given masks. Plastic face shields were provided to workers who could not socially distance. Plastic barriers were also installed.

Agyin said it was unclear whether the 140 positive cases among employees represented a recent outbreak, or were the results of gradual testing at Farmer John. He and other public health experts plant to visit the plant on Tuesday.

“Now, if we’re getting more cases, we have to take closer look at where it’s coming from and why it’s happening,” Agyin said.

He said tracing the spread and initial infection among Farmer John employees are also complicated by the fact that most of its workers do not live in the city of Vernon, let alone within the county.

Smithfield Foods, which bought Farmer John in 2016, did not immediately respond Saturday to a request for comment.

Meatpacking plants across the country have dealt with outbreaks of the coronavirus among their workers throughout the pandemic, including a Central Valley plant that had 138 of its employees test positive for the disease.

The close working quarters in the plants, employees chopping and packing meat in tight assembly lines, along with the delay in guidance from public health officials to provide face coverings for workers may all be factors in why the disease has taken hold of many meatpacking plants, Agyin said.

Hundreds of pigs are trucked each day into the facility at 3049 E. Vernon Ave., where they are killed and turned into Dodger Dogs and the ham, bacon, sausage and hot dogs sold under the Farmer John label at supermarkets and restaurants.

City News Service contributed to this report.