28 positive cases: Patrick Cudahy plant closing for 2 weeks 'to protect our team from COVID-19'

CUDAHY -- Smithfield Foods, Inc. announced Wednesday, April 15 that it will close its Cudahy, Wisconsin and Martin City, Missouri facilities beginning later this week -- the Patrick Cudahy plant in Cudahy shuttering for two weeks. The announcement came less than 24 hours after a FOX6 investigation exposed growing concerns about a COVID-19 outbreak in Cudahy.

In a press release Wednesday, Smithfield said a "small number" of employees tested positive. A company spokesman declined to say exactly how many. The Cudahy Health Department confirmed 28 positive cases at the plant -- up from nine last week. That's what prompted Smithfield to announce the closure.

"We had to thank you guys for that," said Willie Garron, former union rep. "We are happy they are doing the responsible thing for the workers and the community itself."

Garron said until Wednesday, it seemed like no one was listening.

"They really trying to hide the number," said Garron.

"I think it was a good decision on their part," said Cudahy Mayor Thomas Pavlic. "There was a lot of information coming from employees. They were getting it. I was getting contacted by employees. Just easier they took the action so we didn't have to come in behind and shut down your plant."

On Tuesday, of five employees who contacted FOX6 News, three agreed to be interviewed at the suggestion of Garron.

"I don't know, but I can tell you it's more than 20 ," said an employee. "More than 20, yes."

"She thinks about 50 or 60 people," said the daughter of an employee.

Smithfield officials noted in a news release Wednesday the Cudahy and Martin City facilities are located in close proximity to urban areas in which community spread of COVID-19 has been prevalent. Officials said employees will be paid for the next two weeks, during which time essential personnel will repeat the rigorous deep cleaning and sanitization that have been ongoing at the facilities.

“From farm to fork, our nation’s food workers, American family farmers and the many others in the supply chain are vital to the security of our country. This is particularly evident as we battle COVID-19 together. Please join me in thanking them,” said Kenneth M. Sullivan, president and chief executive officer, for Smithfield in the release.

Smithfield's Martin City plant, which employs over 400 people and produces spiral and smoked hams, receives raw material from the company’s Sioux Falls, South Dakota facility, which is closed indefinitely. Without these raw materials, the facility cannot continue to run.

Smithfield will resume operations in Sioux Falls once it receives further direction from local, state and federal officials. This will also allow the company to bring its Martin City facility back online, the release said.

“The closure of our Martin City plant is part of the domino effect underway in our industry. It highlights the interdependence and interconnectivity of our food supply chain. Our country is blessed with abundant livestock supplies, but our processing facilities are the bottleneck of our food chain. Without plants like Sioux Falls running, other further processing facilities like Martin City cannot function. This is why our government has named food and agriculture critical infrastructure sectors and called on us to maintain operations and normal work schedules. For the security of our nation, I cannot understate how critical it is for our industry to continue to operate unabated,” said Sullivan in the release. "We are doing everything in our power to help protect our team members from COVID-19 in the workplace. This starts with stringent and detailed processes and protocols that follow the strict guidance of the CDC and extends to things like the use of thermal scanning, personal protective equipment and physical barriers, to name a few. We are also being explicit with employees: ‘Do not report to work if you are sick or exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms. You will be paid."

According to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), there is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with the transmission of COVID-19.