(Adds comment from Missouri health department)
CHICAGO, Jan 6 (Reuters) - Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork processor, said on Wednesday it is actively preparing for COVID-19 vaccine distribution to employees and has medical capabilities at its U.S. plants.
Meatpacking workers were among the groups hit hardest by the new coronavirus last year, as U.S. slaughterhouses became hot spots for outbreaks in the spring, helping spread the virus around rural America.
Smithfield, owned by China’s WH Group, is one of the first companies in the United States to say it is preparing to vaccinate workers, although it declined to provide details on its plans and said circumstances vary by state.
More Americans were hospitalized with COVID-19 on Wednesday than at any time since the pandemic began, as an historic public vaccination effort lagged.
According to federal guidance by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food and agricultural workers are scheduled to receive the vaccine in a later phase, after healthcare workers and people over the age of 75.
In Missouri, where Smithfield owns meat plants and hog farms, state officials encouraged the company’s moves.
“We are fully supportive and appreciative that employers like Smithfield are looking ahead and are actively engaged now, making plans to protect their employees through vaccination when their turn comes,” the Missouri Department of Health & Senior Services said.
The Washington-based Migration Policy Institute estimates that 10% of U.S. meatpacking workers are unauthorized immigrants, a potential barrier to getting medical care in some states. Smithfield said it does not employ undocumented immigrants and that all of its workers will be eligible to receive vaccines.
The U.S. Labor Department and a state workplace safety regulator in California separately cited Smithfield last year for failing to protect employees from COVID-19 and other violations during the pandemic. The company has disputed the findings.
Smithfield and other meatpackers also came under fire last year as American pork exports to China soared while U.S. processors warned of domestic meat shortages due to COVID-19 outbreaks at slaughterhouses. (Reporting by Tom Polansek. Additional reporting by Tina Bellon in New York. Editing by Nick Zieminski and Richard Pullin)