NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. (WPRI) — A food processing facility at the Quonset Business Park has become a COVID-19 hotspot in Rhode Island, WPRI 12 has learned.
Taylor Farms New England, which makes salad and other fresh foods for grocery stores, has had about 100 cases of the disease associated with its North Kingstown plant, R.I. Department of Health spokesperson Joseph Wendelken said in an email.
The Department of Health and the Department of Business Regulation “have been working with them for about two weeks,” Wendelken said, insisting that no one diagnosed with COVID-19 or simply experiencing symptoms is going to work at the plant.
“The facility is now mandating the use of facemasks for employees, employee temperature checks are being done at the start of every shift, and enhanced symptom screening of employees is being done,” he said.
“However, we are in daily contact with the facility and will take stricter action if there is another grouping of cases among people currently at work,” he added.
The Quonset facility formerly belonged to Greencore, which closed it in 2018 after an FDA inspection triggered a recall.
Retail Business Services, a division of Stop & Shop parent company Ahold, purchased the facility from Taylor Farms last year but hired Taylor Farms to operate it. Roughly 250 people were expected to be hired once it opened last September, according to a news release issued at the time.
The facility “will process fresh food items for area grocery stores, including cut fruit and cut vegetables, leaf, grain and pasta salads, sandwiches, wraps, and other items commonly found in deli or grab and go sections of supermarkets,” the news release said.
In a statement, Taylor Farms said the company first implemented new protocols to deal with COVID-19 on March 15, including extended paid sick days, employee outreach, “working in smaller groups, social separation and personal and job site sanitation.” Addition sanitation personnel were also hired “to continuously clean common areas in all our plants,” the company said.
Temperature checks and mandatory facemasks began on March 24, according to the company.
“In our Rhode Island operation, we have several employees who have tested positive for COVID-19 and those individuals are currently in self quarantine or under medical care,” Taylor Farms said. “All employees who recently came in contact with those individuals have been asked to contact their company funded healthcare providers and are home on paid sick leave.”
“We continue to monitor the situation carefully,” the statement added.
WPRI 12 was contacted by a Taylor Farms employee named Jose who asked that his last name not be used. The 62-year-old claimed a lack of social distancing was why he contracted the virus.
Speaking through an interpreter, he said, “Nothing, nothing, they did not do anything to try to protect us. Only in the cafeteria were we required to stay apart from each other.”
He added, “My son-in-law tested positive, my daughter tested positive, my grandkids all tested positive.”
Wendelken emphasized that “there is no indication that the virus is foodborne,” noting that the FDA has said it will not issue a recall because of a sick employee in a food processing plant.
Gov. Gina Raimondo referenced the outbreak at Taylor Farms on Wednesday during her daily coronavirus conference call with reporters while discussing the state’s need to have more testing available as the economy reopens.
“That’s the kind of stuff that’s going to happen, and we’re not quite yet at a place where we can do that, what I keep calling ‘mobile testing’ — get down there quickly, with the machine, test everybody,” she said.
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook