Business

Coronavirus outbreaks reported at NC produce farms

Posted May 13, 2020 1:32 p.m. EDT
Updated May 13, 2020 7:39 p.m. EDT

— Coronavirus outbreaks have been reported at four produce farms across North Carolina, including two in the Triangle.

The state Department of Health and Human Services lists 14 infections at Porter Farms Produce in Wake County and 19 at Harrington & Sons Farms near Sanford.

Porter Farms manager Charity Morris said 14 migrant workers who live on farm property and help harvest strawberries and other produce at the farm's two locations – on Ten-Ten Road south of Raleigh and on N.C. Highway 42 in Willow Spring – tested positive for the virus April 20-22 and were isolated for two weeks. The workers were allowed to return to the fields once they were medically cleared.

"These workers were obviously out in the field and never had any contact with customers up at the stands," Morris said. "Any time they were at work, they were always wearing masks and gloves."

Porter Farms "acted very swiftly" to isolate the workers, she said.

"We wanted to make sure we didn't allow any further spread and wanted to protect the rest of our employees and, obviously, the general public," she said.

While the workers were isolated, the farm shifted away from selling strawberries that were already picked and allowed all customers to pick their own, according to a statement issued by Porter Farms. Hand-washing stations were added, hand sanitizer has been made available to customers, and high-contact surfaces are disinfected several times a day.

Food safety specialists at North Carolina State University have told Porter Farms that their produce is safe to sell and eat, as coronavirus isn't a food-borne pathogen, Morris said.

"We have a lot of safety guidelines set into place. We had those guidelines set into place even before we were aware of this situation," she said. "We understand how difficult it is for people to come out at a time like this, and we wanted to make sure that our customers felt as comfortable as possible any time they were here."

North Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler agreed that food from farms across the state is safe to eat, even if some farmworkers have COVID-19, the illness associated with the coronavirus.

"The strawberries are fresh, so I can't imaging that there's any problem with thinking the strawberries aren't safe," Troxler said.

People were out in the field picking strawberries at Porter Farms' Ten-Ten Road operation on Wednesday afternoon, including Kristin Gurganus, who brought her three children as a remote learning activity.

"I don’t think that that would have stopped me," Gurganus said of the infected workers, "because I know, especially with the local [farms], they are going to take every precaution they have because they understand that this is their busiest season."

She also noted the strawberry fields allow for plenty of social distancing.

"We have huge fields that have plenty of space for customers to come out and separate themselves," Morris said. "With U-Pick strawberries, it’s all about customer experience. We definitely want people to come out, enjoy their time with their families, enjoy the outside, being in the field."

In Guilford County, nine virus infections were reported at Rudd Strawberry Farm, while Barbee Farms in Cabarrus County reported four cases, according to DHHS.

"Our cases were over three weeks ago," Rudd posted on its Facebook page. "We worked closely with the Guilford County Health Department. With their guidance, we reopened our drive-thru service last week."

Harrington & Sons didn't respond to requests for comment.

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