COVID-19’s impact on meatpacking workers was much deeper and broader than previously thought, according to a Congressional report released Wednesday.
The Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis obtained data on COVID-19 cases and deaths from just the five largest meatpacking companies in the country. The new data shows cases and deaths were much higher than any previous tally for the industry.
Combining the subcommittee’s data with Investigate Midwest’s tracking shows that, across the industry, about 86,000 workers tested positive during the pandemic and that 423 died.
In roughly just the first year of the pandemic, 269 people who worked for Tyson Foods, JBS, Smithfield Foods, Cargill, and National Beef died due to complications from the coronavirus, according to the subcommittee’s report.
The report slammed the companies for being slow to implement protections for workers in the pandemic’s early days, and it said the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, charged with overseeing worker safety in the industry, failed to mitigate the virus’s spread.
Rep. James Clyburn, the subcommittee’s chairman and a South Carolina Democrat, said it’s imperative to learn as much as possible about what meatpacking plant workers have lived through.
“We must get a full accounting of what happened to them during the coronavirus pandemic,” he said, “so we can learn from these failures and to prevent a tragedy like this from ever happening again.”
The North American Meat Institute, the industry’s lobbying organization, said in a Wednesday statement that protections installed by plants prevented further spread of the virus. Many workers have also been vaccinated in the past several months, and, across the country, coronavirus cases and deaths are steadily declining, according to The New York Times.
Tyson Foods said it has invested more than $810 million in protecting workers. “Even one illness or loss of life to COVID-19 is one too many, which is why we’ve taken progressive action from the start of the pandemic to protect the health and safety of our workers,” the company said.
Smithfield Foods said it “swiftly and effectively came into compliance with all health and safety recommendations and continues to operate under that guidance today.”
JBS said it has spent about $760 million to protect workers. “We have taken aggressive action to keep the virus out of our facilities and adopted hundreds of safety measures,” it said in a statement.
Cargill and National Beef did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
The subcommittee’s report contends the companies’ response led the virus to spread out from plants to the wider community, at least early in the pandemic. Some scientific research supports that conclusion.
Through May 2020, counties with meatpacking plants saw 10 times as many cases as counties without meatpacking plants, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture study. But then the difference in cases started to decline. As the virus became more widespread, counties with and without meatpacking plants saw similar numbers of cases.
Scientific studies have aimed to estimate the number of positive cases tied to the meatpacking industry. One calculated that, as of July 21, 2020, between 236,000 and 310,000 cases (or 6-8 percent of all US cases) and between 4,300 and 5,200 deaths (or 3-4 percent of all U.S. deaths) were linked to the industry.
No federal agency has consistently tracked cases and deaths in the meatpacking industry. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention twice released data from several states in the first half of 2020 but then stopped. Only a handful of states, such as Colorado and North Carolina, have updated figures throughout the pandemic.
Investigate Midwest has tracked cases at specific plants using news reports, company releases, and government data. It has obtained some data through public records requests. Its tracking shows about 50,000 cases and at least 260 deaths across the entire industry.
However, the new figures from the subcommittee show COVID-19’s true impact was much higher than previously known.
Looking at just the five companies, the subcommittee found at least 59,000 employees tested positive for the virus and at least 269 died between March 1, 2020, and Feb. 1, 2021.
Investigate Midwest has tracked about 22,000 cases and 106 deaths tied to plants owned by these five companies. Adding the subcommittee’s totals skyrockets the figures for the entire industry.
Smithfield CEO marks up CDC memo
The report provides more details on an incident early in the pandemic that helped set the tone for how the federal government would regulate the industry’s actions going forward.
In April 2020, a CDC team visited Smithfield’s Sioux Falls, South Dakota, plant, which had one of the first meatpacking outbreaks to make national news. The CDC compiled a detailed list of recommendations.
But, as USA TODAY reported, the recommendations were watered down. CDC Director Robert Redfield instructed his staff to add in qualifiers such as “if feasible” while sitting in the White House.
The watered-down report was released April 22, 2020. A day earlier, Smithfield’s then CEO, Ken Sullivan, emailed a high-level USDA official with his thoughts on it, according to the document obtained by the subcommittee.
Sullivan had written over the original CDC report, pointing out what he saw as flaws. One CDC recommendation was to identify housing for workers who could not self-isolate. Sullivan wrote, “How? We are not FEMA? We are a pork company.”
Another recommendation, to distribute masks in a way where people wouldn’t have to touch each other, would eat into three hours of work time, he wrote in the margins.
In his email, he wrote some of the CDC’s recommendations “are problematic for a 110 year old, 8 story plant. As discussed, social distancing is the single most challenging thing to achieve in a (dis) assembly production environment. Workers are often shoulder to shoulder and the plant, in general, is a beehive of activity. As you know, Sioux Falls is not different in that regard to any other plant.”
“You said it best,” he continued, “the best we can do in these environments is aggressively mitigate risk, not eliminate it. THANK YOU FOR YOUR HELP!!!”
The USDA official replied, “We are on it.”
Other emails obtained by Public Citizen showed the USDA was invested in keeping the plant open: Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue himself emailed South Dakota’s governor asking to discuss “unintended consequences” after she asked the company to shut the plant down for safety reasons. And Smithfield repeatedly asked the USDA for help to keep plants open when local officials wanted to shut them down.
In the weeks and months after the episode with the watered-down recommendations, government agencies would largely shy away from holding plants accountable for high case counts and deaths.
OSHA’s “political decision”
The subcommittee also shed more light on OSHA’s hands-off approach to the meatpacking industry under former President Donald Trump.
Overall, the agency conducted far fewer inspections in 2020 than it did the previous year, and a USA TODAY and Investigate Midwest story, which is cited in the subcommittee’s report, showed the agency was not inspecting every plant with a death linked to it.
Many inspections were also conducted virtually, meaning inspectors did not actually visit the plants they were investigating. These inspections represented about a fifth of all OSHA inspections of meatpacking plants from April 2020 to February 2021, when the first and last virtual inspections were conducted, respectively, according to an Investigate Midwest analysis of agency data.
To better protect workers, unions and other worker advocates wanted OSHA to issue an emergency temporary standard for the industry, a move many viewed as a first step to being better able to protect workers. But the Trump administration never implemented the standard.
OSHA officials told the subcommittee that was a “political decision,” according to the report.
Without an emergency standard, according to the subcommittee’s report, OSHA had to use the “general duty” clause—a catch-all rule requiring employers to provide safe workplaces—to hold companies accountable, a much harder ask. One former OSHA official said the agency has a “higher burden of proof” when using this standard.
Having no official, government tracking of cases in the industry also made OSHA’s oversight duties more difficult, according to the subcommittee.
An OSHA official told the subcommittee it had to rely on tracking from the Food and Environment Reporting Network to track infections and deaths. (A government agency relying on news organizations for data also appears in emails obtained by Public Citizen: A USDA official shared Investigate Midwest’s tracker with colleagues when trying to get a handle on how many plants had outbreaks.)
Many more workers vaccinated
The report also highlighted some of the strides companies have made with vaccinating workers.
Tyson Foods announced Tuesday 96 percent of its active workforce is vaccinated. In April, after the three vaccines were widely available, about 30 percent of its workforce had been vaccinated. The company credited its “extensive testing and vaccine requirement.”
JBS said more than 75 percent of its workforce was vaccinated due to its “robust” program that includes on-site clinics, paid time off, incentive bonuses, a multilingual campaign, and a sweepstakes for a year of free meat. In April, about 58 percent were vaccinated, the company said.
“The vaccination rate of JBS USA team members at nearly all of our facilities exceeds the average rate of surrounding communities,” it said.
Smithfield did not provide what percentage of its workforce is vaccinated. The North American Meat Institute said it did not have an industry-wide estimate of how many workers had been vaccinated.
Sky is the managing editor for Investigate Midwest. Previously, he was the Center's USA TODAY Agriculture Data Fellow. In 2019, he graduated from the Missouri School of Journalism with a master's degree in investigative reporting. He's covered Missouri state government for the Columbia Missourian and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Before grad school, he was a reporter in Texas, covering local governments and law enforcement. At Investigate Midwest, he focuses on data journalism.