UPDATE 1-JBS ordered to test workers as more Brazil meat plants register COVID-19 cases

(Updates with court decision about JBS in Três Passos)

SAO PAULO, June 23 (Reuters) - Food producer JBS SA was ordered to test all workers for COVID-19 at a Rio Grande do Sul meat plant, labor prosecutors said on Tuesday, on the same day they raised the number of meatpacking plants with confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus to 32.

JBS declined to comment on the decision, saying the plant remained open.

State prosecutors said a labor court ruled that JBS should test all workers at its Três Passos plant in five days, as well as put on paid leave any employees who test positive for COVID-19, for a minimum of 14 days.

Slaughterhouses in 23 municipalities in Rio Grande do Sul state, the country’s southernmost state, registered COVID-19 cases among food plant workers. The state is Brazil’s third-largest chicken exporter and producer.

To date, some 4,957 workers at meat plants have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, 25.14% of the state’s total 19,710 cases, the labor prosecutors said. That proportion was as high as 35% at one point, as Brazil became the world’s No. 2 hot spot for the COVID-19 pandemic, behind only the United States.

There are more than 1.1 million people infected and 52,000 deaths from COVID-19 in Brazil.

Five employees from Rio Grande do Sul’s meatpacking plants and 12 relatives or friends of people working in the industry died because of the disease, the labor prosecutors said.

JBS and rival BRF SA, which also operates in the region, had plants closed there and in other states because of outbreaks.

The pandemic has not affected Rio Grande do Sul’s output or exports so far, according to José Eduardo do Santos, executive director at Asgav, the state’s producers association.

He told Reuters in a recent interview that the state’s chicken exports rose by 64.5% to 281,400 tonnes between January and May, generating $403 million in the period.

Meatpackers became hotbeds for the COVID-19 contagion as employees often work at densely packed workstations in cold, virus-preserving environments.

The meat industry employs an estimated 65,000 in Rio Grande do Sul, the labor prosecutors said. (Reporting by Ana Mano; Editing by David Gregorio and Peter Cooney)

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