Animal rights activists plan to protest in front of the Farmer John slaughterhouse in Vernon Tuesday, one day after more than $100,000 in fines were announced against the plant and a subcontractor over a massive outbreak of COVID-19 among Farmer John workers.
The group Direct Action Everywhere — which saw 26 of its members arrested when they attempted to shut down operations at the slaughterhouse in late September — plans to set up caution tape outside the facility to “warn the public about viral disease and animal cruelty at the company.”
The demonstration is one of five coordinated events taking place Tuesday at slaughterhouses and factory farms throughout California, with others taking place in Sonoma County, Tulare County and two in Stanislaus County.
Demonstrators say they will wear face masks at all times and practice six-foot social distancing.
Their protest is twofold: Warning that plants such as Farmer John can be hotbeds for the transmission of infectious diseases such as COVID-19, and educating the public about the animal cruelty they say exists there and at similar facilities.
Thousands of pigs are trucked each week into the facility at 3049 E. Vernon Ave., where they are killed and turned into Dodger Dogs, as well as the ham, bacon, sausage and hot dogs sold under the Farmer John label.
“There’s lots of reasons to oppose factory farms,” DXE’s Matt Johnson told City News Service. “We’re fundamentally an animal rights group, but with this (COVID-19) in the news, it’s timely to talk about this. Factory farms are a perfect breeding ground for infectious diseases to start, and once they do start, slaughterhouses are a perfect place for them to spread.”
The group is asking people to visit www.nomorefactoryfarms.com to sign a letter urging Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state Legislature to institute a moratorium on new factory farm construction in California.
Virginia-based Smithfield Foods, owner of Farmer John, was fined $58,000 by the Division of Occupational Safety and Health of California, and another $47,000 in fines were issued to CitiStaff Solutions Inc. last week.
The COVID-19 outbreak at Farmer John is the largest at any nonresidential facility in Los Angeles County.
United Food and Commercial Workers 770 filed complaints with Cal-OSHA in May, and called for the Farmer John plant to be shut down.
“In the absence of leadership from Smithfield, we have taken it on ourselves to call for safer working conditions and an investigation from Cal/OSHA,” said Jose Guzman, a worker at Farmer John.
“They’ve never taken our health seriously — we are disposable to them as long as their profits keep going up, and it’s no surprise to see this many citations given,” Guzman continued.
But Smithfield says it has implemented stringent new health protocols to protect against the virus, and promised to appeal the citations.
A company spokesperson said Cal-OSHA “did not individually analyze how these individuals contracted COVID-19. Rather, the agency has taken the surprising position that every single person working at the plant who contracted COVID-19 caught the virus at work. The agency’s position completely rejects the clear evidence established by health experts that community spread exists.
“Smithfield diligently investigates every positive case among our workers, identifying every possible source of infection. We only wish Cal/OSHA had undertaken a similarly careful analysis, rather than jumping to the incomprehensible conclusion that any worker in the state who tests positive for COVID-19 must have been infected in the workplace,” the statement continued.
The company also takes issue with a citation that claims it should have should have reported an alleged COVID-19 hospitalization on Feb. 14, 2020, arguing that the full nature of the pandemic was not yet evident that early date.
“The final two COVID-19 citations generally relate to COVID-19 precautions — masks, barriers and social distancing,” Smithfield said. “As has now become typical from state and federal OSHA, these citations relate back to time periods when no meaningful guidance on COVID-19 mitigation measures existed. Smithfield procured and provided masks, face shields and other personal protective equipment early and aggressively and, without question, during the time period covered by the Cal/OSHA citation. Indeed, the citations cover the period of time when employers were specifically told not to require masks. The California government did not require masks at work until June and did not issue food industry guidance until July — long after Smithfield implemented mask requirements at all of its facilities.”
Among the measures Smithfield says it has put in place:
— Adopted a series of stringent and detailed processes, protocols and protective measures that follow and in some cases, exceed CDC and OSHA guidance for meat and poultry processing workers and employers;
— Boosted personal protective equipment (PPE) to include masks and face shields;
— Installed plexiglass and other physical barriers on the production floor and in break rooms;
— Implemented mass thermal scanning systems to identify employees with elevated temperatures prior to entering facilities;
— Made free voluntary COVID-19 testing available to employees;
— Increased social distancing wherever possible;
— Added abundant hand-sanitizing stations;
— Enhanced cleaning and disinfection;
— Explicitly instructing employees not to report to work if they are sick or exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms;
— Requiring that sick employees stay home and isolate according to CDC and OSHA guidelines;
— Paying employees, including any and all bonuses, when they are quarantined;
— Offering paid leave for all employees at high risk for serious complications from COVID-19;
— Expanded employee health benefits and removed all barriers in its health plan to access medical care, including eliminating co-pays for COVID-19-related testing and treatment;
— Educating all employees about how COVID-19 spreads and how to protect themselves and others;
— Posted employee communications in multiple languages;
— Deferred all nonessential business travel;
— Restricted all nonessential visitors.
On Sept. 28-29, six DXE Los Angeles activists were arrested on suspicion of trespassing for entering Farmer John, while another 20 were arrested for alleged public nuisance for blocking trucks from delivering pigs to the plant. They were all cited and released.
In May, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors ordered the county’s health department work with city officials in Vernon and union officials to investigate nine industrial facilities that have experienced outbreaks of the coronavirus, including Farmer John, to ensure that all nine facilities were in compliance with U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Cal-OSHA’s COVID-19 guidelines.
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