Nearly 90% of major US meat plants had cases of COVID-19 in the first year of the pandemic
The U.S. House Select subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis began its investigation last year amid evidence that factories were major spreaders of COVID-19 and workers suffered unusually severe outbreaks. It is unclear what the consequences of the investigation might be.
“The impact of the coronavirus on essential workers in the meatpacking industry was both dire and preventable,” the subcommittee chairman’s representative, James Clyburn, told Reuters. “As our investigation continues, I reiterate my call on meatpacking companies to make massive changes and immediately provide safe working conditions for their employees.”
While the spread of COVID-19 in meat plants was widely covered in the media during the first year of the crisis, the percentage of major packing plants that had multiple cases was not previously reported.
Data from meat packers Tyson Foods, JBS, Cargill, Smithfield Foods and National Beef released in October showed 59,000 cases of COVID-19 and 269 deaths among their workers between March 2020 and February 1, 2021. Both figures were about three times higher than the previous ones. estimates.
Reuters compared this data, which included the locations of companies with COVID-19 cases, to publicly available company documents and websites that list the companies’ main treatment plant locations to determine the percentage of facilities. who had several cases.
The analysis showed multiple cases at 218 of the 247 factories owned by the five companies in the United States during the period. This represents 88.2%. For each individual company, the rates ranged from 82% of JBS’62’s US plants – including those owned by its subsidiary Pilgrim’s Pride – to 100% of National Beef’s eight plants.
Mark Lauritsen of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents meatpacking workers, said the figures were “a reflection and confirmation of the severity of the initial outbreaks in meatpacking”.
Reports of outbreaks at meat plants have slowed since the first year of the pandemic, but infections with the Omicron variant are causing staffing problems, according to meat companies and union officials.
Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson did not comment on the percentage of the company’s factories with cases, but said the company had spent $810 million on preventive measures against COVID-19 and began providing paid sick leave to vaccinated workers this month.
Smithfield Vice President of Corporate Affairs Jim Monroe called Reuters’ analysis “misleading” and said one of the reasons for the high number of cases was due to “frequent and widespread testing” of workers. Monroe also highlighted Smithfield’s efforts to protect its workers, including providing protective equipment like face shields and installing sanitizing stations.
National Beef, Cargill and JBS did not respond to a request for comment.
(Reporting by Leah Douglas; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)