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Matthew Wadiak isn’t sure President Trump’s executive order keeping meat plants like Tyson Foods’ in operation despite employee COVID infections is such a great idea, but he’s always been out of step for a chicken processor.
He sees himself more as a food lover, sustainability advocate and environmental steward as CEO of Cooks Venture, a pasture-raised poultry startup with operations in Arkansas and Oklahoma
The company, which includes Arkansas poultry breeding expert Blake Evans, is growing heirloom chickens on Evans’ family’s old farm spread in Decatur (Benton County) and packaging them at a rate of hundreds of thousands of birds per month at a plant in Jay, Oklahoma.
“We’re COVID zero at the farm and facility,” Wadiak told Arkansas Business on Thursday, and he’s determined to keep things that way. “Of course nobody is impervious to this thing, but we put in a lot of protocols before there was even any guidance on the virus, from the time that we first heard that it might be an issue.”
“We’ve done a lot of tracking of employee social interactions, and we’ve asked workers who think they may have had any contact with infected people to stay home from work while we cover their wages,” he continued. “A lot of plants didn’t do that tracking,” and others pushed workers back to their posts, union officials have charged.
Tyson Foods Inc. of Springdale and several other meat industry giants like Smithfield Foods Inc., JBS USA Holdings Inc. and Cargill Inc. have shut down more than a dozen pork, beef and chicken processing plants since experiencing local spikes in employee coronavirus cases. Trump’s order to keep meat plants open as critical parts of the infrastructure came a day after Tyson Foods’ Chairman John Tyson warned of a “breaking” food supply chain in full-page ads in newspapers including The New York Times, the Washington Post and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
The administration said Trump acted to safeguard the nation’s food security, and Wadiak acknowledged that “it’s a tough situation for everybody,” because people must have food.
“Yes, you can have an executive order, but if people are sick or afraid to come to work, it’s impossible to keep up production,” he said. “You shouldn’t have an executive order with no recognition for the workers who may be put at risk, especially when there’s been so little help to the industry with guidance, or coordination in getting protective gear for the workforce.
“You can’t add fuel to a barn fire you started and then ask people to walk into it. We haven’t had one interaction with the government where they’ve given us clear guidance or assistance. It was, ‘go out and get your own masks.’”
Wadiak’s operations are small, with about 200 employees, so his scale doesn’t present the same dangers as those at companies employing 2,000 or 3,000 workers per plant. But he also says the social dynamic at his company contrasts with the lowest-cost labor approach taken by many bigger processors.
“I’m not pointing fingers here,” Wadiak said. “Tyson is our neighbor, and we appreciate the opportunities they offer, and I know Tyson was built on the backbone of Don Tyson coming in every day to work in his khakis, that whole ethic.”
The industry has evolved into an environment of artificially low pricing, he said. “Retailers are struggling, and I think Tyson is powerless in the face of the huge demand they have to fill for meat, and that means working conditions are unsavory from a social standpoint.”
Turnover at processing plants was high even before COVID-19, Wadiak said, and now more than 25 meat industry workers have died of the virus, understandably terrifying many of their co-workers. “Communities have been seeking guidance and reassurance, but the federal response hasn’t met that need.”
Cooks Venture operates from a sustainable philosophy, producing premium chickens with free access to the outdoors. Its heirloom strains were developed by Blake, whose maternal grandfather, Lloyd E. Peterson, developed one of the hardiest and most popular chicken breeds of the 20th century, the “Peterson male.” Blake and company genetics chief Richard Udale collaborated to create what Wadiak called “the country’s only biodiverse and vertically integrated poultry operation” over a decade at Crystal Lake Farms in Decatur.
Those birds are the linchpin to Cooks Venture’s vision for a regenerative, Earth-friendly food industry with a feed-supply chain designed to help other farmers capture carbon in their soil, combating climate change.
Wadiak noted that Cooks Venture participates in Oklahoma’s Quality Jobs Program, which gives incentives to companies committed to paying above-average wages and promoting economic development.
“This is not disposable labor,” Wadiak said. “These people deserve a decent wage and reliable advice and protocols. Part of the issue has been that OSHA [the Occupational Safety & Health Administration] guidance and CDC [Centers for Disease Control] guidance differed.”
Final takeaway? “My heart goes out to the folks going to work right now,” he said. “It’s a bad time and a bad situation. If I was a worker in a place like that, one of the big plants, I don’t know what I’d do.”