Meatpackers Face Close COVID Scrutiny

House Subcommittee Asks Meatpackers, OSHA for Documents on COVID Response

Todd Neeley
By  Todd Neeley , DTN Staff Reporter
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A House subcommittee has opened an investigation into meatpacking plants' response to the COVID-19 outbreak. (Photo courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

OMAHA (DTN) -- A House subcommittee has launched an investigation into COVID-19 outbreaks at meatpacking plants owned by Tyson Foods Inc., JBS USA and Smithfield Foods Inc., as well as the response from the Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

When COVID-19 started showing up in packing plants across the country early last year, packing plant closures caused cattle markets to crash even as meatpackers raised prices on retailers. Farmers faced a backup of livestock on the farm, leading to billions of dollars in losses, and packers scrambled to safeguard plant workers.

Since the beginning of the pandemic last year, more than 50,000 meatpacking plant workers have tested positive for COVID-19 and more than 270 workers have died from the virus, according to the House subcommittee.

On Monday, Rep. James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., chairman of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, in a series of letters asked for additional information from executives at the three companies, as well as from OSHA Deputy Assistant Secretary James Frederick.

In a letter to Frederick, Clyburn said the Trump administration didn't do enough to hold meatpacking plants accountable for employee safety.

"A swift and forceful response from OSHA could have led meatpacking companies to adopt stronger safety measures, preventing outbreaks and saving lives," Clyburn said in the letter.

"But in the last year, OSHA failed to issue enforceable rules, respond in a timely manner to complaints, and issue meaningful fines when a company's unsafe practices led to the deaths of employees. As a result, I am concerned that under the Trump administration, OSHA did not fulfill its mission to protect vulnerable meatpacking workers during the pandemic."

Sarah Little, vice president of communications for the North American Meat Institute, said meat and poultry producers have taken measures across the industry to secure workers.

"Public health guidance has varied widely around the world and across the United States throughout the pandemic, but more than $1.5 billion in comprehensive protections instituted since the spring successfully cut average case rates for meat and poultry workers five times lower in December 2020 than they were in May, while infections rocketed up by nine times for the general population in the same period," Little said in a statement.

"The meat and poultry industry is focused on continuing these effective protections, reaffirmed by the Biden administration, and ensuring frontline meat and poultry workers are vaccinated as soon as possible, as employers, unions, civil rights leaders, and governments around the world agree these workers should be among the first vaccinated after healthcare workers."

At the end of last week, the Biden administration announced worker safety guidance for the industry.

Little said the Biden guidance was "similar" to the efforts already implemented by the meat and poultry industry since the beginning of the pandemic.

In the letters to Tyson, JBS and Smithfield, Clyburn requested a bevy of documents from the companies by Feb. 15.

According to an August 2020 CDC report, a single case of the virus spread to 929 employees at a Smithfield plant in South Dakota. Meatpacking plant infections have also spread the coronavirus into nearby communities.

"According to a study by the National Academy of Sciences, meatpacking plants were associated with between 236,000 to 310,000 coronavirus cases and 4,300 to 5,200 coronavirus deaths as of July 21, 2020," Clyburn wrote in a letter to Smithfield President and CEO Dennis Organ.

"These findings suggest these plants 'may act as transmission vectors into the surrounding population and accelerate the spread of the virus beyond what would be predicted solely by population risk characteristics.' When large meatpacking plants closed down temporarily, the rates of coronavirus spread slowed in those counties, strongly suggesting that the plants were contributing to community transmission."

In a letter to Tyson President and CEO Dean Banks, Clyburn asked for more information about an alleged betting pool at a company meatpacking plant in Waterloo, Iowa, where supervisors and managers allegedly bet on how many employees would test COVID-19 positive.

"According to the health department in Black Hawk County, Iowa, more than 1,000 workers at the plant contracted the virus and at least five employees died," Clyburn wrote.

"After the allegation came to light that Tyson managers were betting on coronavirus infections, you stated that the company was 'very upset to learn of the behaviors found in the allegations,' and Tyson terminated seven managers following an 'independent investigation' the company commissioned. Tyson has not released the findings from this investigation and has not stated what controls it has implemented, if any, to prevent more abuses of worker health and safety or to identify potential similar conduct at other facilities."

When it comes to JBS USA, the committee is asking for more information regarding allegations from former employees at the Greeley, Colorado, plant that the company did not provide effective testing and protective equipment.

Todd Neeley can be reached at todd.neeley@dtn.com

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Todd Neeley