The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, chaired by Rep. James E. Clyburn, released a staff memorandum highlighting evidence that the number of coronavirus infections and deaths at meatpacking plants across the country is significantly higher than previously reported. The Subcommittee reviewed documents obtained from five of the largest meatpacking companies in the country (JBS USA Food Co., Tyson Foods Inc., Smithfield Foods, Cargill Meat Solutions Corp. and National Beef Packing Co. LLC). It reported that during the first year of the pandemic, at least 59,000 meat industry workers contracted the COVID-19 virus, and at least 269 of them died.

The Subcommittee reports that certain meatpacking plants saw particularly high rates of coronavirus infections during the first year of the pandemic. For example, 54.1 percent of the workforce at JBS’ Hyrum, Utah, plant contracted the coronavirus between March 2020 and February 2021, 49.8 percent of the workforce at Tyson’s Amarillo, Texas, plant contracted the coronavirus between March 2020 and February 2021, and 44.2 percent of the workforce at National Beef’s Tama, Iowa plant contracted the coronavirus between April 2020 and February 2021. The total number of coronavirus infections and deaths at these facilities may be even greater than these figures suggest, as the data provided to the Select Subcommittee in some instances excludes coronavirus cases confirmed by offsite testing or employee self-reported cases.

“Instead of addressing the clear indications that workers were contracting the coronavirus at alarming rates due to conditions in meatpacking facilities, some meatpacking companies prioritized profits and production over worker safety,” the Subcommittee said in a press release. It referred to reports from Tyson Foods telling its workers, “It is vital that you come to work as planned, despite stories about ‘shelter in place,’” and Smithfield executives pushing back against federal and state government recommendations for COVID precautions at meat plants.

The report also detailed that the federal government failed to provide the guidance and oversight needed to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. “Despite repeated calls from labor groups, Democratic lawmakers, and experts in infectious disease and workplace safety, the Department of Labor failed to protect meatpacking workers from harm by refusing to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) when the pandemic was ravaging meatpacking facilities,” the release states. “OSHA informed the Select Subcommittee that the Trump Administration made a “political decision” not to issue an ETS, leaving staff without an enforceable regulatory standard that would require employers to take specific steps to protect meatpacking workers.”

“The harsh reality is that many of the companies were slow to act in the early days of the outbreak, and whatever progress that was achieved was due to the union demanding action,” Martin Rosas, a representative for a United Food and Commercial Workers Union in Kansas, told the Associated Press.

The North American Meat Institute issued a statement declaring that comprehensive protections instituted since the spring of 2020 successfully lowered transmission among meatpacking workers and held case rates today to more than 98% lower than case rates in the general U.S. population. The Meat Institute strongly urged President Biden to prioritize vaccinations for frontline workers, including meat industry employees.

“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, president and CEO of the Meat Institute.

The Select Subcommittee’s report is available here.

Sources: Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, North American Meat Institute, Associated Press