Three months after chairman of the board warns “the food supply chain is breaking,” Tyson announces it will test employees in all facilities

Experts argue the move is reactive and worker infections must be treated like the public health crisis they are, not like a private-sector problem.

Tyson Foods, one of America’s largest meat companies, has announced it will pursue widespread testing and monitoring of Covid-19 in its virus-stricken plants.

Pictured above, workers wait in line to get tested before entering the Tyson Foods pork processing plant in Logansport, Indiana, on Thursday, May 7, 2020.

In a press release issued Thursday, the company also announced a new chief medical officer position, and 200 additional nurses and administrative staff, as part of a plan to test more employees on site and monitor others for symptoms in all of its 140 facilities. Tyson, which as of this writing has had just over 10,100 positive cases among its employees, far more than any other meatpacker, according to the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN), did not commit to testing every worker for the virus.

“While the protective measures we’ve implemented in our facilities are working well, we remain vigilant about keeping our team members safe and are always evaluating ways to do more,” Donnie King, a company executive, said in the press release. 

The country’s largest meatpackers have acknowledged that they are not following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance on social distancing and production line speeds.

The Springdale, Arkansas-based company, which also makes Jimmy Dean and Hillshire Farm products, has been besieged by worker infections. Three months ago, amid a wave of plant closures across the country, company chairman John Tyson published a front-page newspaper ad with a fearsome warning: “the food supply chain is breaking.”

After President Trump used executive power to keep plants open, the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW), which represents 24,000 Tyson employees, urged the administration to enact mandatory safety standards, and compel companies to provide equipment like masks and face shields, and to enforce social distancing inside their facilities.

But without clear directions or consistent messaging from local health officials, the virus continued its rapid spread. As the total caseload in meat plants approaches 40,000 people, the country’s largest meatpackers have acknowledged that they are not following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance on social distancing and production line speeds, and haven’t been willing to release official counts on positive cases. 

Tyson claims that it has “likely been involved in more testing than any other company in the country,” and has tested roughly one-third of its 120,000 U.S. employees.

After consumer groups filed a petition with the Federal Trade Commission to enjoin Tyson from claiming its plants are “safer than ever,” the company told The Counter that it has taken significant steps to stop the spread of the virus.

Derek Burleson, a Tyson spokesman, said that every Tyson employee is screened for disease symptoms, such as coughing, shortness of breath, and high temperatures, before they clock in for a shift. The company also purchased infrared temperature scanners, deployed 500 employees to enforce social distancing, provided face masks, and installed plastic barriers on some workstations and in break rooms. 

The company also claims it has “likely been involved in more testing than any other company in the country,” having tested roughly one-third of its 120,000 U.S. employees. Currently, less than 1 percent of the company’s workforce is actively sick with Covid-19, Burleson said. 

“Most of the testing relies on symptoms which we know represent a very small proportion of those who are able to carry the infection to others.”

Going forward, Tyson said it will use an algorithm to test a “statistically sound” sample of employees. The weekly number will be “dynamic and adjusted,” based on the number of positive cases at a plant, and the infections in the community, according to Thursday’s announcement. Non-symptomatic employees will be tested, as will employees who show symptoms, and others who come into contact with them.

The monitoring plan is designed by a Scottsdale, Arizona company called Matrix Medical, and the testing protocols are based on CDC guidance that Stephen Morse, a Columbia University epidemiologist, said is “totally inadequate.”

“There’s tremendous sampling bias in the testing, and that’s totally inadequate, because we have no idea how representative that testing is,” Morse said. “Most of the testing relies on symptoms which we know represent a very small proportion of those who are able to carry the infection to others.”

Tyson and other companies can better prevent virus spread by enforcing social distancing, requiring personal safety equipment, and providing home test kits, Morse added.

“Because they’ve already had so many cases, this, I think, has to be called a bit more reactive than proactive.”

In the absence of an organized public response, some private employers are taking it upon themselves to test and monitor their workers. Besides Tyson, The Washington Post reports that Walmart has explored administering coronavirus and antibody tests for its American workers, while Kroger, the country’s largest grocery chain, has offered home tests to symptomatic employees. Amazon, McDonald’s and other corporate giants are turning to epidemiologists to draw up safety rules. The Post cites the nation’s piecemeal response to the pandemic having “forced business to take a more proactive approach to a public health crisis that has resulted in a recession.” 

But Nellie Brown, who directs Cornell University’s workplace health and safety programs, challenges that characterization, five months into the fallout from a pandemic that has already infected millions of essential workers, and close to 10,000 from this one company alone. “Because they’ve already had so many cases, this, I think, has to be called a bit more reactive than proactive,” said Brown. “You could say that anything people do that exceeds guidance is proactive.”

As long as worker health and safety continue to be classified as a mostly private-sector business problem rather than the public health disaster it clearly is, widespread testing protocols can’t be anything other than reactive. 

“Yes, we want to prevent exposure in the workplace,” Brown said. “But this is a public health problem. So you have to tackle it from the public health point of view, and treat the workplace as piece of that picture.”

Sam Bloch is a staff writer for The Counter, where he covers business, environment and culture. He has also written for The New York Times, L.A. Weekly, Places Journal, Art in America and other publications.