At least 59,000 meat packaging workers fell ill with COVID-19 and 269 workers died when the virus ravaged the industry in 2020. These numbers are about three times higher than previously thought, according to a new report from the United States House released Wednesday.
With workers side by side along the production lines, the meat packaging industry was one of the. Companies could have done more to protect their workers, according to the US House Select on the Coronavirus Crisis subcommittee, which used internal documents from five of the largest meat-packing companies for its report.
The new estimate of infections in the industry is well above the 22,400 that the United Food and Commercial Workers Union has declared infected. And the actual number of infections could be even higher because company documents typically do not account for coronavirus cases confirmed by external testing or self-reported by employees.
Food system workers, who are unable to do their jobs remotely, were disproportionately affected by COVID-19 at the start of the pandemic. A study of working-age adults in California released in June found that the food and agriculture industry had the highest death rates from COVID-19. Another study published in the journal Food Policy earlier this year concluded that the presence of an ox or ahas more than doubled the per capita coronavirus infection rates of a U.S. county.
“Instead of grappling with clear indications that workers were contracting coronavirus at alarming rates due to conditions at meat-packing facilities, meat-packing companies prioritized profits and production instead. and worker safety, by continuing to employ practices that have led to overcrowded facilities in which the virus easily spreads, ”the report says.
At the height of last spring’s epidemics, U.S. meat wrap production fell to around 60% of normal levels, with several large factories forced to shut down temporarily for deep cleaning and safety improvements or operated out of the box. slower speeds due to worker shortages.
The report says companies have been slow to take protective measures such as checking employee temperatures, distributing protective equipment such as masks, and installing barriers between workstations.
A document revealed that workers at a Tyson factory wore masks “saturated” with sweat or other fluids and were not socially estranged or had only “flimsy” plastic bags separating them. About half of the workers at the plant contracted the virus and five workers died from COVID, according to the report.
Cargill: “We worked hard”
The North American Meat Institute trade group has championed the industry’s response to the pandemic.
“Frontline meat and poultry workers were among the first affected by the pandemic, but publicly available data confirms that the comprehensive measures implemented in the sector since spring 2020, including intensive efforts infection prevention and immunization programs, have been successful in protecting the industry’s dedicated and diverse workforce as they continue to feed Americans and run our economy, ”said Julie Anna Potts, President and CEO of the management of the commercial group.
The report is based on documents from JBS, Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods, Cargill and National Beef. Together, they control over 80% of the US beef market and over 60% of the pork market nationally.
Cargill, Tyson and JBS released statements on Wednesday saying they had worked aggressively to meet federal health and safety standards for the coronavirus and had taken additional steps to protect their employees, such as performing widespread testing at most outbreak of the pandemic and urge employees to get vaccinated.
“Throughout the pandemic, we have worked hard to maintain safe and consistent operations. At the same time, we did not hesitate to temporarily slow down or reduce the capacity of processing plants when we felt it necessary to do so, ”said Cargill spokesperson Daniel Sullivan. .
Companies have expressed regret at the devastation caused by the virus.
“Even illness or loss of life from COVID-19 is one too many, which is why we have taken incremental measures since the start of the pandemic to protect the health and safety of our workers, including extensive testing and a vaccine requirement that has led to the immunization of over 96% of our US workforce, ”Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson said.
According to the report, infection rates were particularly high in some meat packing plants. For example, 54% of the workforce at a JBS plant in Hyrum, Utah contracted the virus between March 2020 and February 2021. And 44% of the employees at the National Beef plant in Tama, Iowa, contracted COVID-19 from April 2020 to February. 2021.