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COVID-19 has taken its toll on the nation’s meat industry, with outbreaks and deaths connected to some of its largest processing plants. The 6,000-worker JBS facility in Greeley has reported over 350 coronavirus cases, and most recently, its eighth employee death.
Outside that media spotlight, meat-processing facilities that operate on a much smaller scale than the giants of the industry are also deemed essential, and also need to stay open during the pandemic. But these smaller operations, many of which are found across Colorado and surrounding Western states, lack the financial and political resources of the large companies to create standardized COVID guidelines for their plants.
Meat industry experts in Colorado State University’s Department of Animal Sciences are stepping in to serve these small, essential business by offering COVID-era guidance that’s tailored specifically to them. These experts serve on CSU’s Task Force on Colorado Food Supply, active since the start of the pandemic to provide the state with data-driven analysis to help it marshal resources and respond to food supply chain issues.
Guidance for small producers
CSU meat scientists have recently published a set of guidelines, available on the task force website, to help small processing plants implement best practices to keep operating while maximizing safety for their workers and customers. The guidelines were authored by Sara Gonzalez, a graduate student in animal sciences, and vetted by a team of faculty that includes Bob Delmore, Brad Morgan and Mahesh Nair.
Delmore, who has applied many of these new small processor guidelines to the Ram Country Meats operation out of CSU’s meat sciences facility, explained that the task force wanted to help small operations continue running seamlessly during the outbreak. Many are becoming busier as large meat plants are operating at reduced capacity during the pandemic. Companies like Steving Meats in Kersey, Double J Signature Cuts in Pierce, and Innovative Foods in Evans are examples of smaller operations in Colorado.
“In these facilities, they might do 10 hogs a day, 20 sheep the next and 15 cattle,” Delmore said. “They don’t register anywhere near the JBS kind of scale. And in our industry, we don’t have a lot between the big and the very small. But these are important operations because they fulfill a need in the community from people who only want a small number of animals processed.”
Drawing from existing resources
To create the guidelines, Gonzalez said she drew from resources at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, World Health Organization and North American Meat Institute and customized them to be simpler and appropriate for widespread distribution. A native of Venezuela who recently completed her master’s in animal sciences at CSU, Gonzalez has also volunteered to translate the document into Spanish, to serve the large Spanish-speaking population working in the meat industry in Colorado.
Small meat processing facilities usually have a handful of employees who need to stand close to each other in tight quarters, Gonzalez said. The guidelines cover basics of hygiene and sanitation practices, as well as addressing the outbreak itself and why these practices are important. It includes links to information on things like face coverings, hand-washing, and practices for removing and discarding gloves.
“We wanted something simple and readable that small and medium meat processors could give to their workers,” Gonzalez said.