Covid-19 cases and deaths linked to meatpacking plants were far higher than previously estimated, House subcommittee finds
New congressional investigation finds more than 59,000 cases and 269 deaths among workers at five major meatpacking companies.
A House subcommittee investigating the coronavirus crisis found that Covid-19 cases and deaths linked to meatpacking plants were far higher than previously estimated, according to an investigation released Wednesday.
The subcommittee concluded that Covid-19 deaths among meatpacking workers totaled 269 and cases totaled more than 59,000 based on documents from five major meatpackers: JBS, Tyson, Cargill, National Beef, and Smithfield, which collectively control 80 percent of the U.S. beef market and 60 percent of the pork market. These numbers are nearly triple previous estimates compiled by the Food and Environment Reporting Network using news reports and statistics from public health agencies. At some plants, more than 40 percent of the workforce was infected.
The congressional investigation, first reported by Reuters, also found that “companies could have done more” to limit spread of the virus. At a Tyson plant in Texas, for example, many employees’ masks were “saturated” in sweat or other fluid, meaning they may have less effective, and workers were separated by plastic bags stretched onto frames rather than barriers that complied with CDC recommendations. Half of the facility’s workforce contracted the virus.
“It was not surprising that Covid-19 began spreading quickly at the start of the pandemic in these plants and workers got really sick and started dying,” said Debbie Berkowitz, a former Occupational Safety and Heath Administration (OSHA) chief of staff and senior policy adviser under Obama, in a subcommittee hearing on Wednesday. “What is stunning is that despite CDC recommendations to the public and businesses about using social distancing to slow the spread of Covid, the meat industry decided to thumb their noses at this first recommendation and just keep those crowded conditions in place.”
“What is stunning is that despite CDC recommendations to the public and businesses about using social distancing to slow the spread of Covid, the meat industry decided to thumb their noses at this first recommendation and just keep those crowded conditions in place.”
OSHA played a part in exacerbating the severity of outbreaks in meatpacking plants as well, the investigation found. Instead of implementing mandatory Covid-19 workplace safety rules, the agency issued non-binding guidelines that went unheeded in many places. By the end of May 2020, for instance, only 37 percent of meatpacking plants were offering Covid tests to workers. Upon interviewing OSHA leadership, investigators concluded that the choice not to issue emergency rules was a “political decision.” (Despite the change in administration, OSHA still has not introduced mandatory Covid-19 safety protocols for meatpacking plants.)
That decision also made it more difficult for employees to persuade OSHA to inspect their workplace and penalize the plants for lax Covid protocols. “Workers felt completely abandoned and unprotected, as they were unable to file complaints with OSHA that would result in an inspection once they fell sick and Covid began to spread through meatpacking plants and communities,” said Magali Licolli, co-founder of worker advocacy organization Venceremos, in the hearing.
Despite the dramatic increase in the total case count estimate, the subcommittee’s numbers are still likely an undercount because Smithfield, Tyson, and National Beef counted only positive cases that were confirmed through onsite testing. They may have missed additional infections in employees who were tested outside the plants.
Outbreaks at meatpacking plants have declined in recent months. Most companies offer vaccines on site, and Tyson implemented a vaccine mandate that resulted in 96 percent of the workers receiving the shot by late October. Regulatory requirements may soon push case counts even lower: In September, the White House announced that OSHA is developing emergency rules that require companies with more than 100 employees to ensure all workers are either vaccinated or tested weekly. All five meatpackers would be required to comply.