Foster Farms is grappling with multiple COVID-19 outbreaks at three of its plants in the Central Valley.
One of the facilities, a sprawling poultry processing complex in Livingston, was cleared from outbreak status in September after an earlier surge of the coronavirus infected nearly 400 people working at the plant. Nine people died.
Two of the company’s plants in Fresno are also now facing outbreaks. One of those plants, a facility on S. Cherry Avenue in south Fresno, is experiencing a major outbreak, according to Dr. Rais Vohra, interim health officer for the Fresno County Department of Public Health.
“We’re actively seeking information,” Dr. Vohra said at a briefing Tuesday afternoon. “There’s an investigation ongoing. We’re still trying to learn about exactly how this outbreak came to manifest.”
Dave Pomaville, director of Fresno County’s Department of Public Health, said in an interview Monday that the most recent cases at Foster Farms were detected during the week leading up to Thanksgiving. The company then began testing more workers, and a “significant number” came back positive.
So far, health officials in Fresno said they have been notified of 193 employees who have tested positive at the S. Cherry Avenue plant. Pomaville said the positive cases at the company’s W. Belgravia Avenue facility were significantly lower.
“They just triggered their testing protocols and went in and got a whole bunch of people tested,” Pomaville said.
County health officials said that they were working with Foster Farms to verify the exact number of COVID-19 cases affiliated with the company’s facilities, and that the company was testing employees twice a week.
“The goal here is to identify as quickly as we can the positive cases,” Pomaville said. “Out of an abundance of caution, any positive tests we treat as if they are infectious and then they are isolated for 10 days and then screened for symptoms the last 24 hours before they can return to work.”
Foster Farms spokespeople have ignored repeated inquiries from KQED.
Ira Brill, Foster Farms vice president of communications, replied to all recipients of an email with questions about outbreaks at the company’s Central Valley facilities Tuesday afternoon with three words: “Continue to ignore.”
County health officials plan to monitor the case counts and conduct other surveillance of the plants this week to verify practices are being implemented to identify infections early.
“It’s one thing to have the manual on the shelf that says what you’re going to do, and it’s another thing to implement it,” Pomaville said. “We need to see that the practices are being implemented, and that’s where we have our staff periodically go to facilities and ground truth or validate that things are actually happening.”
Late last week, the Fresno Bee reported that the company planned to close its S. Cherry Avenue plant over the weekend for cleaning, citing a company news release Foster Farms did not provide to KQED, despite repeated requests.
“They put extra cleaning protocols in place and I’m not sure when that happened or what duration that was,” Pomaville said. “And I’m not sure that they suspended all operations during that time, but they did take additional steps to sanitize the facility.”
Jacques Loveall, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union local (UFCW 8-Golden State), which represents workers at one of the plants in Fresno currently experiencing an outbreak, said the union is “deeply concerned for the safety of our members” and is “monitoring the situation.”
Loveall also said that Foster Farms is trying to limit the union’s access to the plant.
“This policy, if it is allowed to go in effect, would prevent our representatives from monitoring line speeds and other conditions at the facility that could put these front-line workers in further danger,” Loveall said in an emailed statement.
Foster Farms’ Livingston facility was recently added to the Merced County Department of Public Health’s list of outbreaks, again. The Livingston facility was the site of a major COVID-19 outbreak over the summer in which at least 392 workers were infected and nine died from complications due to COVID-19.
The earlier outbreak prompted Merced County health officials, backed by the state, to close the plant temporarily. An initial health order issued on Aug. 26 mandated the company close its Livingston complex until it was safe to reopen.
The state defines an outbreak in a congregate employment setting as three or more confirmed cases of COVID-19 that are not linked to exposure outside of the workplace, according to the Merced County health order.
At the time, Merced County health officials said the number of known cases in the outbreak were largely based on employees choosing to test and voluntarily reporting to Foster Farms, and that “the true spread of COVID-19 in the Foster Farms Livingston facility remains unknown.”
The Merced County Department of Public Health issued a revised health order on Aug. 28 closing certain areas of the facility for six days.
The plant was cleared from outbreak status shortly thereafter.
Ana Padilla, executive director of UC Merced’s Community and Labor Center, said it’s unclear what changes Foster Farms made after that outbreak.
“Why there’s a new outbreak after apparently getting things under control is something that is of concern,” Padilla said.