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Charmin, General Mills Keep Factories Clean, Workers Healthy, Americans Stocked with Toilet Paper and Pizza Rolls

Why can’t Smithfield Foods figure out what Charmin and General Mills have? They’re cranking out toilet paper and pizza rolls without turning their workforces into coronavirus hotspots:

At the Charmin factory, shift changes have been stretched out over three hours, to keep workers separated at the plant door. Employees have their temperature taken on the way in. And instead of roaming freely throughout the mile-long plant, workers are compartmentalized, with color-coded badges.

“Every individual got assigned a zone that were allowed to operate in,” [worker Jose] de los Rios says. “It reduces the likelihood of spread of any illness across the plant.”

In the beginning, he says, it was disruptive and awkward trying to talk to coworkers while staying six feet apart. But workers have adjusted.

A General Mills plant in Wellston, Ohio, has adopted similar precautions, issuing face masks to workers and erecting a tent in the parking lot, so employees can maintain “social distance” during their breaks. That’s allowed the plant to keep running at full capacity, making frozen pizza and pizza rolls.

…[Plant manager Carolyn Mendel]’s also compared notes on workplace safety with a rival frozen food maker nearby.

“We talk openly back and forth about things that are working in our site,” Mendel says.

So far, the safety measures appear to be working. There have been no confirmed cases of coronavirus at Mendel’s plant or de los Rios’s, although some workers from both facilities have been quarantined as a precaution [Scott Horsley, “This Charmin Factory Keeps Humming Even as Much of America Is Hunkered Down,” NPR, 2020.04.20].

Why is it so hard for meatpackers to adopt the simple and effective precautions that are keeping Charmin and General Foods healthily operating? Perhaps the meatpackers’ commitment to crappy exploitative labor practices:

“In the meat and poultry industry, they have historically not made a priority of worker safety,” said Deborah Berkowitz, a former Occupational Safety and Health Administration official who is now with the National Employment Law Project. “These workers are often very hidden. The plants are often in more rural, remote areas. Therefore people don’t see the sort of sacrifices they’re making” [Horsely, 2020.04.20].

Seth Tupper has more in a brilliant audio report on the meatpackers’ reliance on easily exploited, isolated immigrant labor and how Smithfield’s production model simply doesn’t make room for the health precautions necessary to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Smithfield has designed business processes that can’t take time to keep workers safe.

Charmin and General Mills evidently grasp that keeping their workers healthy is as important as cleaning and oiling the machines and doing other regular maintenance. Your workers are your most valuable equipment. Treat them like gold, and you’ll keep making money.


  1. John 2020-04-21

    Business insurance using, directing best practices, have a huge role here. Recall that a Florida church had to temporarily close when an insurance company cancelled their policy for lack of practicing social distancing.
    This insurance company risk reduction practice generally improved human safety and ultimately business efficiency. If businesses ‘want to do it their way’ – then self-insure.

    Good businesses will implement best practices without cajoling.
    Less than caring business require an economic gun to their heads.

    Implementing best practices reduces the likelihood of lawsuits, too.

  2. bearcreekbat 2020-04-21

    John’s comment underscores an interesting, but somewhat distressing, characteristic of modern Capitalist moral philosophy. For many companies and individuals economic factors are apparently of greater value than human lives. Profit is sacrosanct while lives are expendable.

    This makes me wonder about a change is the long standing moral question involving the runaway trolley and whether you would press a button, or take other (or refrain from) affirmative action, that will cause the trolley to kill one person but save the lives of five other people.

    Substitute your own profit, 401K, or other financial consideration for the five people in danger, or for the one person you could kill to avoid harm to five people, and consider how you now might answer the moral question.

  3. Baby Moon 2020-04-21

    A big part of Trump Barbie’s rationale against a statewide shutdown, other than her raw willingness to allow citizens to sicken and die for the sake of preserving profit margins, was to allow businesses to “innovate.” Charmin and the pizza outfit, obviously, innovated. Smithfield did not and, in fact, was demonstrably criminally negligent in a number of ways toward its workforce including allowing (or even mandating) feverish employees to work, setting up cardboard stations closer than 6 feet, and distributing mesh beard nets as PPE. I’ve seen several businesses “innovate” (mostly local South Dakota citizen run businesses and mom and pop’s) to benefit both their customers and their workers. Larger corporations, though, have, by and large, failed. In Rapid City, Safeway cashiers got PPE just this week!!! Obviously, Smithfield did not innovate and the measures that it did take the time to implement were just useless window dressing. There must be consequences.

  4. Baby Moon 2020-04-21

    I think the insurance issue brought up by John is an interesting one. The Florida megachurch pastor (a South African immigrant that left S.A. when apartheid was outlawed) that was running his neck about continuing services despite his turning himself in on a criminal summons for violating the social distancing order (which may have been mooted by the governor’s subsequent declaration that church services were “essential”) only got himself in line and went to virtual services when his insurance company dropped him. Although many insurance companies have “act of God” exclusions (don’t laugh, it’s true, but I see the irony) they have more power to control the behavior of some of these folks than the government apparently does. Interesting. The guy in Louisiana is a real piece of work and has outed himself as more of a Jim Jones variety of “pastor”, having bussed people to his services from 100 miles away and now declaring that his flock should send their stimulus checks to him. No word about any actions of his insurance company, or maybe he is already self-insured….is that why he needs the stimulus checks?

  5. jerry 2020-04-21

    Truckers shut down traffic in Houston protest. How we gonna get the Charmin and the pizza so we can use the Charmin without delivery of those items.

    “A group of around 75 truck drivers stopped traffic along a Houston freeway for about three hours on Tuesday, protesting low cargo rates and high maintenance costs.

    The drivers, mostly independent owner-operators, parked a long line of trucks along the right shoulder of the 610 East Loop in Houston, forcing police to shut down the freeway during afternoon traffic.

    “What happened this afternoon after 2 p.m., we received reports of about 75 commercial vehicles blocking the 610 Loop, we responded with officers and got the trucks off the freeway and onto an adjacent parking lot,” said Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo during a press conference after the protest ended.

    Addiel Santos said the protest was aimed at letting people know truckers want to be paid more for hauling freight.

    “The brokers are the ones who are breaking the economy and breaking truck drivers; they are killing us, literally,” said Addiel Santos, an independent owner-operator based in Austin.”

  6. Debbo 2020-04-21

    I believe what the truck drivers are saying about the brokers.

    Those preachers-masquerading-as-Christians have no morals, no ethics, no shame. At least their Great God $$$ speaks to them. Thanks to the insurance companies behind the curtain getting their attention.

  7. John 2020-04-21

    We are only beginning to scratch the surface of the potential deaths from this pandemic.
    COVID-19 killed 44,000 – so far. The Spanish Flu killed 675,000 Americans. Since the US population is 3x plus that of 1918 – the corresponding death numbers would be over 2 million.

    Stay home. Apparently the chamber of commerce thinks you are expendable. Give them the finger.

  8. Debbo 2020-04-22

    Minnesota is trying to help farmers get their livestock turned into grocery store cooler fillers. My state Sen. Rich Draheim, R, posted this on FB:

    MDA Assists Livestock Producers/Processors During COVID-19 Pandemic
    St. Paul, MN: Due to market and supply/demand changes for meat products during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) is helping livestock farmers and processors in addressing these current challenges.

    The recent closures of some meat processing plants around the region due to COVID-19 is disrupting traditional animal markets and the meat supply chain. The MDA is working to limit this disruption for producers of smaller herds or flocks by matching them with slaughter facilities and identifying other marketing opportunities.
    Farmers with smaller herds or flocks seeking new processors, alternate markets, or increased storage, please contact Jim Ostlie, 320-842-6910, or Courtney VanderMey, 651-201-6135,
    The MDA is working with existing “Equal To” processors (plants under continuous inspection that are able to produce and process meat and poultry products for wholesale within the State of Minnesota) to expand capacity. We are also developing an expedited approval process to enable plants that currently do not sell wholesale within the state to do so. If these establishments meet the minimum requirements, they will be granted a 90-day provisional grant of inspection.
    Processing plants interested in expanding their slaughter capacity, have additional processing capacity, or wanting expedited licensing, please contact Jennifer Stephes at 651-248-2566.
    The MDA is providing additional financial assistance by awarding over $345,000 in AGRI Value-Added Grants to nine Minnesota meat processors. The companies will be using the funds for facility improvements, such as increasing freezer space and new equipment for slaughter and processing capacity. Many of these grantees are required to make updates to be compliant with the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). This new funding is in addition to the nearly $1 million in Value-Added Grants in FY20, in which meat processors received a significant amount of the total grant funds.
    A new grant program, the AGRI Rapid Response Mini-Grant for Livestock Processing, is intended to assist processors and certain producers respond to market issues caused by COVID-19. This grant will be launched by April 30 and will be available to eligible Minnesota processors of meat, poultry, eggs, and milk, and to livestock producers who need storage capacity for processed products until existing markets return or new markets are developed.

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