Foster Farm chicken breast fillets seen in a Target superstore on February 1, 2020.

A Foster Farms poultry processing plant in California has been forced to temporarily close its doors due to the coronavirus.

At least 358 workers have tested positive and eight have died in what health officials say is the “most severe and long-lasting” coronavirus outbreak in Merced County.

“Foster Farms’ poultry operation in Livingston, California has experienced an alarming spread of COVID-19 among its workers,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said, underscoring the need to “hit the reset button” and reopen the plant safely. 

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A poultry plant in California has been shut down after 358 employees tested positive for the coronavirus and eight died of the disease.

This cluster of cases was reported at a Foster Farms chicken processing facility in Merced County and was described by county health officials as the “most severe and long-lasting outbreak” in the area.

In a statement issued Thursday, the Merced County Department of Health said the number of infected workers is known only because they chose to get screened for COVID-19 and report the positive tests to their employer.

“The true spread of COVID-19 in the Foster Farms Livingston Facility remains unknown,” officials wrote.

The case fatality rate in Merced County hovers around 1.3%, but it is up to 2.2% at the Foster Farms facility, the health department said.

In a statement to Insider, Foster Farms confirmed the death numbers, said it had expanded testing measures in recent weeks, and said it would “complete comprehensive testing” of its Livingston complex Friday.

“Foster Farms has provided Merced County Public Health and the State of California with ongoing testing plans, which would continue to enable the company to effectively screen for COVID-19 in the workforce, while maintaining the essential operations that enable us to contribute to the food supply,” the company wrote.

According to health officials, the outbreak began as far back as June 29 and prompted trips to the plant, as well as recommendations to curb the infection’s spread. Suggestions included “making significant changes to the employee break spaces and performing widespread testing of employees within the facility,” Merced County officials said.

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However, Foster Farms tested less than 100 people — about 10% — of the department that was hardest hit through late July. 

“Over 25 percent of the employees screened at this time tested positive,” the statement continued. “However, expanded testing within the department was not completed for an additional three weeks and subsequently, three fatalities were linked to that department alone.”

COVID-19 has still not been contained at the plant, officials said

Despite subsequent directives, “the spread of COVID-19 within the facility has not been contained and active outbreaks continue to exist, posing a significant threat to Foster Farms employees and the surrounding community,” health officials said, adding that testing remains insufficient.

The Merced County Health Officer ordered the Foster Farms Poultry Processing Plant to close the facility until it has a handle on the outbreaks and can reopen safely, according to the statement. Merced County officials said they attempted to work with Foster Farms, the State Attorney General’s Office, and the California Department of Public Health, but the parties involved couldn’t come to an agreement about how to mitigate the cluster of infections and keep the food production facility open.  

“Our charge is to protect the public’s health, even in the face of difficult decisions. The closure of this plant is the only way to get the outbreak at Foster Farms swiftly under control,” Dr. Salvador Sandoval, Merced County’s public health officer, said in the statement. 

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra seconded the sentiment, writing: “Foster Farms’ poultry operation in Livingston, California has experienced an alarming spread of COVID-19 among its workers. Nobody can ignore the facts: It’s time to hit the reset button on Foster Farms’ Livingston plant.”

This article has been updated with a comment from Foster Farms.

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