Like many meat processors in the country, Burgers’ Smokehouse has tried to operate during the Coronavirus pandemic by making the best of a bad situation. As consumers stayed indoors, they continued to order the company’s traditional country hams and other products through Burgers’ website, catalog sales and retail sales. Then the worst-case scenario for any meat processor occurred.

“Prior to the virus showing up at our doorstep, business was really pretty robust, everywhere except for foodservice, which is no surprise. That industry certainly has taken a direct hit, and our business was no different in that regard,” said Steven Burger, president of the four-generation meat processor located in California, Mo. “But grocery and business-to-consumer business, with our internet and catalog sales, certainly helped offset some of the foodservice loss.”

On Tuesday, April 14, the company confirmed that an employee had tested positive for COVID-19. All the employees in the facility were notified immediately about possible exposure to the virus. The employee who tested positive was quarantined immediately, and employees with known close contact to that person were quarantined as well.

Along with reconfiguring workstations to allow further social distancing and providing each employees with personal protective equipment, Burgers’ initiated a series of actions, including:

  • Required daily temperature checks at all facilities
  • Reinforcing CDC recommendations concerning personal hygiene to all employees
  • Imposed strict travel restrictions for all employees
  • Implemented visitor restrictions at facilities
  • Closed the on-site retail store at the California, Mo., site
  • Intensified cleaning and sanitation of break rooms and restrooms 
  • Implemented a relaxed attendance policy for the duration of the crisis

Unfortunately, after two more employees tested positive, the company decided it was best to close the facility for the rest of the week in order to make further efforts to reduce the number of people in its production areas and break rooms at one time to allow for increased social distancing.

Burger said that when the company’s California plant reopened on April 20, there were only a handful of cases in the county, and those patients had recovered.

“At the time, we felt that containment was in pretty good shape,” Burger said.

However, by Tuesday the 21st company was informed that, of its more than 300 employees, 21 had tested positive for COVID-19. At that time, the company decided the best course of action was to close down for a week.

“As a critical infrastructure industry, we really felt it was important for us to balance the need to stay open but also be cognizant of the health and safety of our people,” said Burger, who added that the company had been working cooperatively with the Moniteau County Health Center. “Our position has been to let the data drive the decisions and not be stubborn when prudence requires shutting down, but not necessarily rushing to shut the plant down. This is a virus that’s going to be around a long time, and we’re going to have to figure out a way to live with it, because we do not have the luxury of living without it.

“When we come back on Thursday (April 30), we’ll have raised the bar once again in terms of internal containment or prevention of spread. Like everybody else, we’re evolving and changing as circumstances warrant,” he adds.

The interruption of regular business has brought on hardships for small processors, who have had to adjust to the loss of foodservice sales, a growing demand at retail, and the need to maintain food production while a dangerous virus has infected more than one million Americans. Burgers’ closed its facility twice, not because it had to or because it was forced to, but because the management decided that it was the right thing to do.

“The health and safety of our employees is our first priority. We are proud of their efforts to provide our nation with a reliable food supply during this national emergency. We offer our prayers and support for a quick recovery to the families affected by the COVID-19 virus,” Burger says.