Health officials shut down Foster Farms poultry plant in California


LIVINGSTON, Calif. (AP) — A chicken processing plant in central California has been ordered to shut down after it became the site of one of the largest and most severe COVID-19 outbreaks in the state, health officials said.

The order to close the Foster Farms Livingston Facility came after at least 358 employees tested positive and eight employees died because of the the coronavirus, according to a letter obtained from the Merced County Health Department, the Merced Sun-Star reported Thursday.

The plant was ordered to close on Wednesday but Merced County’s spokesperson Mike North said county officials on Thursday issued a 48-hour stay to the shutdown order that expires Saturday at 6 p.m. to “help facilitate logistics associated with any necessary closure.”

North said the enforcement stay came after officials received a phone call from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s secretary for food safety. He gave no other details.

Foster Farms said in a statement the plant continued to operate Friday, that there would be “comprehensive testing” and that follow up testing would be done “to ensure that COVID-19 prevalence remains minimal.” The company did not address the shutdown order.

The company said it has cooperated with health officials and that it has “an extensive history of successfully working with federal, state, and local agencies.”

“Foster Farms has provided weekly data to the Merced County Health Department since June 30, and consistently offered to answer any questions related to that data. We have promptly responded to any and all recommendations and directives from the department,” it added.

State Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement that Foster Farms’ poultry operation in the small city of Livingston has experienced “an alarming spread of COVID-19 among its workers.”

“Nobody can ignore the facts: It’s time to hit the reset button on Foster Farms’ Livingston plant,” Becerra said.

The California Department of Public Health also issued a statement to support the county’s action, with Acting State Health Officer Erica Pan saying Foster Farms needs to understand ”it has a legal obligation to comply with public health orders and guidance, as well as an obligation to its workers and to the people of Merced County and surrounding counties.”

The outbreak at the Livingston Facility accounts for 18% of COVID-19 deaths in the county under age 65, 7% of total county deaths, and 4 out of 10 coronavirus deaths in Livingston, the health department said.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

Foster Farms employs about 12,000 people in turkey processing in Turlock and at chicken plants in Livingston, Fresno and Porterville as well as in Oregon, Washington, Louisiana, and Alabama. About 3,750 people work at the Livingston facility, which is one of the world’s largest chicken plants.

In its letter, the state health department said the Livingston plant outbreak was of particular concern because “other Foster Farms facilities in multiple counties also are experiencing outbreaks.”

The letter did not provide any details about the other plant outbreaks.

In the letter, health department officials say they attempted to curb the Livingston outbreak several times to no avail.

The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health visited the Livingston facility along with the county health department on Aug. 3 and noticed the county’s initial recommendations had not been adopted. According to the letter, the county reissued testing directives on Aug. 5 and Aug. 11 that went unmet.

As a result, the State Attorney General’s Office, the California Department of Public Health and the county health department “worked with Foster Farms to limit the impact of the closure and could not reach agreement,” according to the statement.

“The closure of this plant is the only way to get the outbreak at Foster Farms swiftly under control. Our hearts are with the eight families who have lost a loved one,” Merced County Public Health Office Dr. Salvador Sandoval said in the statement.