Thursday, October 28, 2021

Meatpackers hit hard by COVID-19

dA congressional committee reports that the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in meat-packing plants last year were three times higher than was believed.

At least 59,000 employees at the five largest meatpacking companies in the United States contracted the virus, which was almost three times more than previously estimated for those companies based on publicly available information, according to a staff memorandum from the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis.

The subcommittee report said at least 269 of those workers died after contracting COVID-19, also nearly three times higher than previous estimates based on public data compiled by the Food and Environmental Reporting Network (FERN).

The report, released in conjunction with a subcommittee hearing Wednesday on the subject, said the latest figures come from newly obtained documents from the five meatpackers: JBS USA, Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods, Cargill Meat Solutions and National Beef Packing Co.

The report also said internal company documents obtained by the subcommittee show that some companies dismissed indications that workers were contracting the virus at high rates and instead "prioritized profits and production over worker safety."

The report accuses the Occupational Safety and Health Administration of making a "political decision" not to set regulatory standards that would have protected workers and could have saved lives and concludes the Trump Administration failed to provide the guidance and oversight needed to mitigate the spread of the virus. 

It said the Labor Department failed to protect meatpacking workers by refusing to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard that would have required employers to take specific steps to protect workers.

Responding to the hearing, the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) said data from both FERN and the New York Times show average new case rates in the sector have been similar to or lower than case rates in the general population since the fall of 2020. Case rates in the meat sector are currently 98 per cent lower than the general U.S. population, NAMI said.

 “Frontline meat and poultry workers were among the first impacted by the pandemic, but publicly available data confirm that comprehensive measures implemented in the sector since spring 2020, including extensive infection prevention and vaccination efforts, have successfully protected the sector’s dedicated and diverse workforce as they have continued feeding Americans and keeping our economy working," said Julie Anna Potts, chief executive officer for NAMI.

Independent scientific research backs the effectiveness of COVID-19 prevention measures implemented in meatpacking facilities since spring 2020, NAMI said. The group cited University of Nebraska Medical Center research that found a combination of universal masking and physical barriers reduced cases significantly in 62 per cent of meat facilities studied.