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Meatpacking plants across the country look different than they did six months ago, and health experts are hoping some of the precautions put in place to protect workers during the COVID-19 pandemic will hold into the future.

Researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln came together to share their findings on the practices and standards adopted by the facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic at the Animal Health in the Heartland virtual symposium put on by the Iowa Biotech Association Aug. 19. UNL professors and researchers Shelly Schwedhelm, Jocelyn Herstein and Clint Krehbiel discussed the changes plants made at the start of the pandemic, and the steps taken to reduce the spread of the virus.

Schwedhelm, the executive director of emergency management and clinical operations at the Global Center for Health Security (GCHS) at UNL was joined by Herstein, a regional director with the GCHS as they both helped outline changes Nebraskan meatpacking plants should take to limit exposure.

The first and most important step, Schwedhelm said, was to figure out how to best communicate with the workers. Through their research, they found that over 30% of all workers in Nebraskan plants didn’t receive enough information about the pandemic.

“It’s one thing to put information on the walls, but it’s a whole other thing to make sure the information is getting to them,” Schwedhelm said.

Looking at management practices, Schwedhelm said their team quickly realized how established working environments had set up the industry for failure. Close working quarters, coupled with a work culture where taking paid leave and sick days is discouraged, combined to make it difficult to implement changes.

Ultimately, Schwedhelm and other medical professionals outlined some key changes to make, starting with distancing in the workplace. If there were jobs that couldn’t be adequately distanced, Schwedhelm said requiring masks and face shields became a priority.

“When we first did site visits, no one had any masks in place,” she said. “That took a tremendous amount of communication with the front lines.”

As it stands today, meatpacking plants across Nebraska and the U.S., while not operating at full capacity, are progressing smoothly without increased risk for plant-wide exposure. Schwedhelm said she credits some of that change to leadership.

“When you trust your leaders and frontline supervisors, that goes a long way to understanding the virus,” she said.

As we understanding more about the virus and distancing ideally becomes less necessary, Schwedhelm said she hopes many of the changes are never abandoned. They are the best way to limit exposure to any disease or illness, not just COVID-19, she said.

“There are things we are doing now that I never want to lose hold of,” she said.

Krehbiel, who is the head of the animal science department at UNL, joined the talk to discuss how the swine industry was poised for failure before even without the exposure risks of meatpacking facilities.

Problems began during the African swine fever epidemic in China. As 20% of the global swine herd was wiped out due to containment issues in China, the U.S. started ramping up production to meet global demand. Growers produced more hogs and plants began exceeding capacity to process demand, Krehbiel said. COVID-19 came at the worst time possible.

“Those workers were already stretched to the max,” he said.

As COVID-19 hit and meatpacking plants were taken offline, Krehbiel said our record pace of hog production came to a halt faster than anticipated. It forced an estimated 937,000 market hogs to be “removed” from the market.

Data acquired by several firms from USDA-tracked numbers suggest that out of those 937,000 hogs, 300,000 to 400,000 were euthanized.

On the flip side, over half of all the market hogs that couldn’t make it to market were either locally sold or donated to their communities. Krehbiel said those local meat lockers saved thousands of wasted animals and added an untold boon to local economies.

As plants come back online, Krehbiel said the focus has shifted to making sure hog producers are emotionally and financially stable. He said the Center for Disease Control numbers have suggested suicide rates in farmers have only climbed since 2016 when record numbers were hit. In 2016, 17.3 farmers out of 100,000 committed suicide.

“Obviously, this has had a tremendous impact on the emotional well-being of our producers,” he said.