VERNON, Calif. (CNS) — Animal rights activists displayed 7,000 paper hearts Monday in front of the Farmer John slaughterhouse in Vernon to honor the 7,000 pigs they estimate are killed at the facility each day.

The demonstration came amid a growing COVID-19 outbreak at the facility, where 882 workers have been infected with the coronavirus. That's more than double the number of cases reported just six weeks ago, and by far the largest outbreak at a nonresidential setting in Los Angeles County.

What You Need To Know

  • Animal rights activists protested in front of the Farmer John slaughterhouse in Vernon on Monday

  • They estimate 7,000 pigs are killed at the facility each day

  • The demonstration comes amid a growing COVID-19 outbreak at the facility, where 882 workers have been infected

  • Activists from the group Direct Action Everywhere, who are organizing Monday's demonstration, staged an attempted intervention at the plant in September

The only other similarly sized outbreak at an industrial facility is the 601 cases at Northrop-Grumman in Palmdale, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

The activists from the group Direct Action Everywhere were there to protest the company's treatment of pigs, but they also wanted to call attention to the public health danger they say exists at slaughterhouses and factory farms everywhere.

"It's time to shut down factory farms and slaughterhouses and create a future that prioritizes compassion, public health and the environment," DXE organizer and schoolteacher Brittany Michelson said.

Virginia-based Smithfield Foods, which owns Farmer John, told City News Service that characterizing the plant as the site of the county's largest industrial COVID-19 outbreak was "a misleading and unfair" statement.

"We are aggressively testing. We have a very low current incidence of positive — including asymptomatic results — and have remained very low for a sustained period. We will continue to aggressively test despite your efforts to stigmatize our employees," the company said. "L.A. County is the number one county in the nation for Covid positive — with more than 1.1 million cases."

In November, Smithfield Foods was fined $58,000 by the Division of Occupational Safety and Health of California, and another $47,000 in fines were issued to CitiStaff Solutions Inc. over the COVID-19 outbreak.

United Food and Commercial Workers 770 filed complaints with Cal-OSHA in May 2020, and called for the Farmer John plant to be shut down. Smithfield said last year that the company had implemented a number of stringent new health protocols to protect against the virus.

Thousands of pigs are trucked into the facility each day at 3049 E. Vernon Ave., where they are killed and turned into Dodger Dogs, as well as the ham, bacon, sausage and hot dogs sold under the Farmer John label.

The company defended its treatment of pigs.

"Smithfield is a recognized leader in animal wellbeing as we produce safe, quality and nutritious food for so many people," Keira Lombardo, the firm's chief administrative officer, said on Sunday. "Smithfield employs veterinarians and other experts across the company who ensure that the safety, comfort and health of farm animals is comprehensive."

DXE staged an attempted intervention at the plant in September, when 26 activists were arrested for attempting to shut down operations at the plant.

No such disruptive actions were conducted Monday.

The group also asked people to visit to sign a letter urging Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state Legislature to institute a moratorium on new factory farm construction in California.

They claim that in addition to the animal cruelty, factory farms "are ideal settings for pandemics and disease to mutate and spread rapidly, with animals crowded together by the many thousands, surrounded by feces and urine which makes them highly susceptible to viral and bacterial infections."

Smithfield — which is owned by WH Group of China — accused the protest organizers of being a "radical vegan group that has committed crimes from coast to coast."