UPDATE 1-COFCO's grains plant in Argentina back online after COVID-19 shutdown

(Adds quote from Bunge spokeswoman)

BUENOS AIRES, Aug 3 (Reuters) - Grains operations of COFCO are largely back online at the Chinese food company’s oilseed crushing and export plant in Timbues, Argentina, after 12 cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed among workers, a company spokesman said on Monday.

The 12 employees who tested positive last month are asymptomatic and 77 other workers had been tested as well, all coming up negative. The outbreak was in the plant’s sampling station, where farm products are received at the Timbues port facility on the Parana River.

The outage at the plant, which employs 350 workers and has an annual grains and oilseeds capacity of 6.5 million tonnes, started on July 27.

The cases had thrown a scare into Argentina’s grains sector, the country’s top source of export dollars as the pandemic pushes the economy deeper into recession.

“Timbues is largely operational with full capacity available and we expect the last section, the sampling station, to also be back in operation around Wednesday this week,” said Allan Virtanen, global communications director at COFCO International, the overseas agriculture business platform for China’s largest food and agriculture company.

“The plant is not receiving trucks until the sampling station gets back online. But there is sufficient stock to crush and load vessels now,” Virtanen said.

Grains powerhouse Argentina exports corn, wheat and is the world’s top supplier of soymeal livestock feed, used to fatten hogs, poultry and cattle form Europe to Southeast Asia.

U.S. agribusiness firm Bunge briefly suspended operations last week at its facility in Puerto General San Martin, Argentina, after an employee tested positive for COVID-19.

A Bunge spokeswoman told Reuters on Monday that the plant “resumed operations on Friday and had no other case confirmed after more tests were done with employees.”

The COFCO and Bunge COVID-19 cases were the first confirmed in Argentine grains port facilities. (Reporting by Hugh Bronstein; additional reporting by Karl Plume in Chicago. Editing by Marguerita Choy and Jonathan Oatis)