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Spokane-area packing plants use beefed up safety to stay open

The Philadelphia Macaroni Co. processing plant is seen on April 27, 2020. The factory is located at 3405 E. Bismark Court in Spokane. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)

Meat processing plants across the country have closed in past weeks as scores of their workers test positive for COVID-19, but Spokane-area food processing plants say they are operating without issue after implementing strict safety guidelines to control spread of the coronavirus.

The Tyson Fresh Meats beef processing facility in Wallula, Washington, closed Friday after more than 100 workers tested positive for COVID-19 and one died. The nation’s largest meat processor has also closed plants in Iowa and Indiana. Other companies have shut down meat processing operations as well.

With about 60 employees at its Spokane Valley location, Ameristar Meats is far from having the more-than-1,400-person operation of a Tyson facility, but the company is owned by a giant – US Foods. An Ameristar spokesperson said employees’ temperatures are taken at the beginning of shifts, masks and gloves are provided for workers and social distancing efforts are implemented at the facility.

Ameristar Meats would not say if any employees had tested positive for coronavirus, but the Spokane Regional Health District earlier this week could not confirm any coronavirus cases connected to the company’s employees.

None of Philadelphia Macaroni Co.’s 65 workers have tested positive for coronavirus, plant manager Scott McKinney said. All employees at its Spokane plant have temperature readings and health screenings at the start of their shift. Everyone wears masks and keeps 6 feet of social distance. Breaks are staggered, and high contact surfaces are sanitized every three hours.

“Many of our employees, this is like their little slogan, ‘Safer than home,’ ” McKinney said. “They feel that it’s safer for them to be here, and we’re doing a more diligent job of being clean and keeping them protected than they are even at home.”

The plant has been making 1.5 million pounds of pasta a week through the pandemic, though it has scaled back on specialty pastas to make extra of staples like spaghetti and elbow macaroni.

“Lord knows, our kids need their mac ‘n’cheese, so we’re doing our best to get that stuff to the shelf,” McKinney said.

ADM – a food processing company headquartered in Chicago which owns the Centennial Mill Mix Plant – said the plant has not had any positive cases of coronavirus.

The company could not speak to the specifics of its Spokane facility, but outlined company safety procedures, such as screening visitors for coronavirus, “enhancing hygiene and cleaning protocols in all facilities” and “implementing procedures to address potential employee or partner exposure issues following CDC guidelines for mitigation and reaction, quarantining, and cleaning.”