(Bloomberg) -- Poultry giant Sanderson Farms Inc. on Monday reported the first case of a worker at a major U.S. meat producer testing positive for coronavirus. The employee and six more from the McComb, Mississippi, plant were sent home to self-quarantine, with pay, but operations continued as normal.A few days later Smithfield Foods Inc., the world’s biggest pork producer, confirmed a positive case at its Sioux Falls, South Dakota, facility. On Friday, beef producers in Canada and Argentina shuttered plants after virus cases.In all likelihood, the number of cases will keep going up at meat plants, farms, warehouses and packaging factories across the globe.The infections speak to a growing threat to the world’s food supplies. Massive operations where workers pick berries together, cut meat side-by-side on a production line or load warehouse trucks in sometimes close proximity risk slowing down. Some facilities may have to shutter for cleaning and worker quarantines. Produce could end up rotting in fields if there aren’t enough healthy workers.“If we can’t flatten the curve, then that is going to affect farmers and farm laborers -- and then we have to make choices about which crops we harvest and which ones we don’t,” said Al Stehly, who operates a farm-management business in California’s North San Diego County, growing about 250 acres of citrus crops, 250 acres of organic avocados and 60 acres of wine grapes. “We hope no one gets sick. But I would expect some of us are going to get the virus.”To be clear, the food from a plant where infection pops up doesn’t pose health concerns because by all accounts Covid-19 isn’t a food-borne illness. Supplies from a farm or a production plant with a confirmed case can still be sent out for distribution.And it’s important to note that so far there’s been no major interruptions to food supplies. Inventories are still ample, and major bottlenecks have not yet developed in the supply chains, which tend to react quickly to changing situations.Meat Giant JBS Steps Up Output to Satisfy Retail Demand JumpStill, there is a risk to continued production. When a worker gets sick, the employee and every person they’ve come into contact with has to be quarantined. That could mean limited impact in some cases, like at the Sanderson factory, where the infected individual’s work was contained to one small processing table. But the more employee mingling there is, the bigger the threat to production.“One of our beef plants feeds 22 million people per day, so it’s vital that these plants stay open,” Dave MacLennan, chief executive officer of Cargill Inc., the world’s largest agricultural commodities trader, said in a recent Bloomberg Television interview.At many meat-processing plants, workers are “essentially elbow to elbow,” said Thomas Hesse, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 401, the largest private sector union in Western Canada that represents 32,000 members, mostly in food processing and retailing. Though employees are usually wearing protective gear, the risk of contagion is difficult to completely eliminate.“There’s underlying tension, there’s fear and there’s anxiety,” Hesse said, calling on employers to act more diligently to keep workers safe, including by increasing the space between work stations.Moves like that would likely hamper output though. It’s a tricky balance for producers who are prioritizing worker safety but also trying to meet the huge surge in demand that the virus has unleashed. Grocery store shelves across the world are running empty as consumers load their pantries in anticipation of long lockdown periods.Just about every major agricultural and food producer is stepping up its sanitary procedures to keep workers from getting infected. Companies are enforcing hand washing, spraying down plants and break rooms and wiping down door knobs. Workers are covered in head-to-toe protective gear, shifts are staggered and lunch breaks are taken alone.In Sabah, the state that churns out about a quarter of Malaysia’s palm oil, the local government ordered plantations and factories in three districts to shut after some workers tested positive for Covid-19. To avoid further disruption, the country’s industry is in a desperate bid to “starve the virus,” disinfecting tractors, providing workers with antibacterial body soap and distributing face masks to employees and their families, said Joseph Tek, CEO of palm-oil producer IJM Plantations Bhd.It’s hard to say if all that will be enough. Given the real possibility of an illness-driven labor crunch, some companies are stepping up hiring now to prepare.Steve Cahillane, CEO of Kellogg Co., said bringing in additional workers is part of the company’s “mitigation plans,” without specifying how many employees have been added.“We’re going to see some creative solutions where folks that are being laid off are going to be able to find new opportunities that continue to support the essential critical infrastructure,” said Mary Coppola of the United Fresh Produce Association. Many food companies will be trying to aggressively hire, including in distribution centers and in retail stores, she said.But it may not be that easy to lure people into the field. For all their import, these are not glamorous jobs.Think of the back-breaking work of tomato pickers, the dangerous conditions at slaughter houses and what many would consider the unpalatable environment of large livestock-feed operations. The wages are often low, benefits meager and contributions hidden from the public eye: How many social-media posts have you seen bursting with appreciation for the grain-export inspectors?Now they’re putting their health at risk by keeping food flowing. Not surprisingly, there’s been some backlash. Unions in South America have threatened to strike over safety concerns. And some poultry workers in the U.S. recently walked off the job.Threat of Sick Workers at U.S. Meat Plants Forces Policy ChangesFood companies are ramping up efforts to make sure employees feel appreciated. Cargill, Maple Leaf Foods Inc., Campbell Soup Co., Mondelez International Inc., Kraft Heinz Co. and Hormel Foods Corp. are among those paying bonuses or premiums to workers.In some places, more unusual solutions are being deployed.Dairy producers in Vermont recently put out a call through social media, asking for volunteers to come milk cows if farmers start falling ill. A day later, more than 80 relief milkers had signed on as standbys.“It started when we got a couple of calls from dairy farmers who were super worried they might get sick and wouldn’t be able to milk their cows, and that would be it -- they’d lose their farms,” said Kim Mercer of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, which posted the online plea. “We now have people everywhere all across the state who are ready to go.”(Updates second paragraph with beef-plant closures.)For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.comSubscribe now to stay ahead with the most trusted business news source.©2020 Bloomberg L.P.
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Hours after the United States became the nation with the largest number of reported coronavirus cases on Thursday, President Donald Trump appeared on Fox News and expressed doubt about shortages of medical supplies, boasted about the country's testing capacity, and criticized his predecessor's response to an earlier outbreak of a different disease."I don't believe you need 40,000 or 30,000 ventilators," he said, alluding to a request by Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York. The president made the statement despite government reports predicting shortages in a severe pandemic -- and he reversed course Friday morning, calling for urgent steps to produce more ventilators.Speaking on Fox on Thursday, Trump suggested wrongly that because of his early travel restrictions on China, "a lot of the people decided to go to Italy instead" -- though Italy had issued a more wide-ranging ban on travel from China and done so earlier than the United States. And at a White House briefing Friday, he wrongly said he was the "first one" to impose restrictions on China. North Korea, for one, imposed restrictions 10 days before the United States.He misleadingly claimed again Friday that "we've tested now more than anybody." In terms of raw numbers, the United States has tested more people for the coronavirus than Italy and South Korea but still lags behind in tests per capita.And he continued to falsely claim that the Obama administration "acted very, very late" during the H1N1 epidemic in 2009 and 2010.These falsehoods, like dozens of others from the president since January, demonstrate some core tenets of how Trump has tried to spin his response to the coronavirus epidemic to his advantage. Here's an overview.Playing down the severity of the pandemicWhen the first case of the virus was reported in the United States in January, Trump dismissed it as "one person coming in from China." He said the situation was "under control" and "it's going to be just fine" -- despite a top official from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention telling the public to "expect more cases."No matter how much the count of cases has grown, Trump has characterized it as low."We have very little problem in this country" with five cases, he said in late January.He maintained the same dismissive tone on March 5, as the number of cases had grown by a factor of 25. "Only 129 cases," he wrote on Twitter.A day later, he falsely claimed that this was "lower than just about" any other country. (A number of developed countries like Australia, Britain and Canada as well as populous India had fewer reported cases at that point.)By March 12, when the tally had again increased tenfold to over 1,200, the president argued that too was "very few cases" compared to other countries.He has also misleadingly suggested numerous times that the coronavirus is no worse than the flu, saying Friday, "You call it germ, you can call it a flu. You can call it a virus. You can call it many different names. I'm not sure anybody knows what it is."The mortality rate for the coronavirus, however, is 10 times that of the flu and no vaccine or cure exists yet for the coronavirus.In conflating the flu and the coronavirus, Trump repeatedly emphasized the annual number of deaths from the flu, and occasionally inflated his estimates. When he first made the comparison in February, he talked of flu deaths from "25,000 to 69,000." In March, he cited a figure "as high as 100,000" in 1990.The actual figure for the 1990 flu season was 33,000, and in the past decade, the flu has killed an estimated 12,000 to 61,000 people each flu season in the United States. That's so far higher than the death count for the virus in the United States, but below projections from the Centers for Disease and Prevention, which estimated that deaths from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, could range from 200,000 to 1.7 million. As of Friday evening, more than 1,200 deaths in the United States have been linked to the coronavirus.On the flip side, Trump inflated the mortality and infection rates of other deadly diseases as if to emphasize that the coronavirus pales in comparison. "The level of death with Ebola," according to Trump, "was a virtual 100%." (The average fatality rate is around 50%.) During the 1918 flu pandemic, "you had a 50-50 chance or very close of dying," he said Tuesday. (Estimates for the fatality rate for the 1918 flu are far below that.)This week, as cities and states began locking down, stock markets tumbled and jobless claims hit record levels, Trump again played down the impact of the pandemic and said, with no evidence and contrary to available research, that a recession would be deadlier than the coronavirus.Overstating potential treatments and policiesThe president has also dispensed a steady stream of optimism when discussing countermeasures against the virus.From later February to early March, Trump repeatedly promised that a vaccine would be available "relatively soon" despite being told by public health officials and pharmaceutical executives that the process would take 12 to 18 months. Later, he promoted treatments that were still unproven against the virus, and suggested that they were "approved" and available though they were not.Outside of medical interventions, Trump has exaggerated his own policies and the contributions of the private sector in fighting the outbreak. For example, he imprecisely described a website developed by a company affiliated with Google, wrongly said that insurers were covering the cost of treatment for COVID-19 when they only agreed to waive copayments for testing, and prematurely declared that automakers were making ventilators "right now."Often, he has touted his complete "shut down" or "closing" of the United States to visitors from affected countries (in some cases leading to confusion and chaos). But the restrictions he has imposed on travel from China, Iran and 26 countries in Europe do not amount to a ban or closure of the borders. Those restrictions do not apply to U.S. citizens, permanent residents, their immediate families, or flight crews.Not only were these restrictions total and absolute in Trump's telling, they were also imposed on China "against the advice of a lot of professionals, and we turned out to be right." His health and human services secretary, however, has previously said that the restrictions were imposed on the recommendations of career health officials. The New York Times has also reported that Trump was skeptical before deciding to back the restrictions at the urging of some aides.Blaming othersThe Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sent test kits to states in February, some of which were flawed and produced inconclusive readings. Problems continued to grow as scientists and state officials warned about restrictions on who could be tested and the availability of tests overall. Facing criticism over testing and medical supplies, Trump instead shifted responsibility to a variety of others.It was the Obama administration that "made a decision on testing that turned out to be very detrimental to what we're doing," he said on March 4. This was a misleading reference to draft guidance issued in 2014 on regulating laboratory-developed tests, one that was never finalized or enforceable. A law enacted in 2004 created the process and requirements for receiving authorization to use unapproved testing products in health emergencies.The test distributed by the World Health Organization was never offered to the United States and was "a bad test," according to Trump. It's true that the United States typically designs and manufactures its own diagnostics, but there is no evidence that the WHO test was unreliable.As for the shortage of ventilators cited by Cuomo, Trump has misleadingly said that the governor declined to address the issue in 2015 when he "had the chance to buy, in 2015, 16,000 ventilators at a very low price and he turned it down."A 2015 report establishing New York's guidelines on ventilator allocation estimated that, in the event of a pandemic on the scale of the 1918 flu, the state would "likely have a shortfall of 15,783 ventilators during peak demand." But the report did not actually recommend increasing the stockpile and noted that purchasing more was not a cure-all solution as there would not be enough trained health care workers to operate them.Rewriting historySince the severity of the pandemic became apparent, the president has defended his earlier claims through false statements and revisionism.He has denied saying things he said. Pressed Tuesday about his pronouncements in March that testing was "perfect," Trump said he had been simply referring to the conversation he had in July with the president of Ukraine that ultimately led to the House impeaching him. In fact, he had said "the tests are all perfect" like the phone call.He has compared his government's response to the current coronavirus pandemic ("one of the best") favorably to the Obama administration's response to the H1N1 epidemic of 2009 to 2010 ("a full scale disaster"). In doing so, Trump has falsely claimed that former President Barack Obama did not declare the epidemic an emergency until thousands had died (a public health emergency was declared days before the first reported death in the United States) and falsely said the previous administration "didn't do testing" (they did).At times, Trump has marveled at the scale of the pandemic, arguing that "nobody would ever believe a thing like that's possible" and that it "snuck up on us."There have been a number of warnings about both a generic worldwide pandemic and the coronavirus specifically. A 2019 government report said that "the United States and the world will remain vulnerable to the next flu pandemic or large scale outbreak of a contagious disease." A simulation conducted last year by the Department of Health and Human Services modeled an outbreak of a rapidly spreading virus. And top government officials began sounding the alarms about the coronavirus in early January.Despite his history of false and misleading remarks, Trump has also asserted, "I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic."This article originally appeared in The New York Times.(C) 2020 The New York Times Company