In this file:


·         Cheap chicken, beef came at a cost. How American meat plants bred coronavirus hot spots.

‘We may be essential, but we’re also expendable’: Meatpackers face a choice between paying the bills and risking their lives


·         Meat plants still coronavirus hotspots after Tyson reveals quarter of NC plant tested positive

At least 15,300 reported positive COVID-19 cases have been connected to meatpacking facilities



Cheap chicken, beef came at a cost. How American meat plants bred coronavirus hot spots.

‘We may be essential, but we’re also expendable’: Meatpackers face a choice between paying the bills and risking their lives


Sky Chadde, Kyle Bagenstose, Veronica Martinez Jacobo and Rachel Axon, USA TODAY

May 21, 2020


Maria cut chicken thighs shoulder to shoulder with co-workers who coughed and ran fevers.


The 33-year-old single mother from Mexico worked on a fast-paced line in one of America’s most dangerous industries. Meatpacking plants have long faced criticism for sacrificing worker safety in the name of efficiency and cheap meat. Injuries are common: Severed fingers. Chemical exposure. Back sprains.


But Maria, who asked to be identified only by her first name because of employment concerns, feared something worse while slicing a steady stream of carcasses in mid-April at the Mountaire Farms poultry facility in Siler City, North Carolina.


As the novel coronavirus invaded meatpacking plants across the nation, infecting dozens — then hundreds, then thousands — of workers, Maria said she feared for her life. Every time a colleague coughed, she said, she wondered if COVID-19 had found its way to Mountaire.


She worried about getting sick and dying, leaving her children without a mother. Maria said her plant supervisors wouldn’t talk about it. So she kept working.


By late April, the company confirmed at least 11 employees had tested positive for the virus. One of them was a co-worker, Maria said, who called her upset that she unwittingly passed the virus to her father and he died.


The meatpacking industry has evolved into a marvel of modern efficiency, producing 105 billion pounds annually of poultry, pork, beef and lamb destined for dinner tables across America and the world. That’s nearly double what it produced three decades ago.


But its evolution came at a cost. The same features that allow a steady churn of cheap meat also provide the perfect breeding ground for airborne diseases like the coronavirus: a cramped workplace, a culture of underreporting illnesses, and a cadre of rural, immigrant and undocumented workers who share transportation and close living quarters.


“This pandemic is preying on decades of the fundamental arrangement of how we produce our food," said Joshua Specht, an assistant professor of history at the University of Notre Dame who studies the meat industry.


The meatpacking industry now faces perhaps its greatest test of worker safety, as the novel coronavirus continues to sweep through its slaughterhouses and processing plants.


As of May 20, officials have publicly linked at least 15,300 COVID-19 infections to 192 U.S. meatpacking plants, according to tracking by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. At least 63 workers have died.


In April, USA TODAY found that 1 in 3 of the nation's 405 largest meatpacking plants operated in a county with a high rate of COVID-19 infections. This week, the data shows that trend has expanded to more than half of those plants.


Companies including Tyson, Smithfield and JBS have implemented measures meant to reduce exposure, with many installing plastic sheeting between workers on the line, providing masks and face shields to employees and taking temperatures daily. Some have offered more generous sick leave.


“They’ve been impressed with how much we’ve done,” Tim Schellpeper, the president of JBS’ beef business, told the Austin American-Statesman about workers’ reaction to coronavirus-protection measures taken inside the company’s pork plant in tiny Cactus, Texas. 


“It’s probably safer in these plants than it is in the communities,” added Shane Miller, senior vice president and general manager of beef enterprise for Tyson Fresh Meats in an interview with the Statesman, part of the USA TODAY Network.


Dozens of plants, including those owned by JBS and Tyson, have closed for days or weeks to slow or stop the spread of the virus.


When federal guidelines for preventing the spread of coronavirus in meat and poultry plants came out in April, “companies immediately worked those procedures, practices and methods into their processes,” said Sarah Little, a spokeswoman for the North American Meat Institute.


“And now we have CDC, USDA, OSHA, and the state and local officials working together to ensure that the facilities are doing everything possible to protect employees.”


But some say the measures are too little, too late in an industry where worker safety has always been at risk.


Rantoul Foods' pork plant outside Champaign, Illinois, took some of the same precautions as Tyson, Smithfield and JBS and still succumbed to a coronavirus outbreak.


Prompted by complaints from plant workers, county health inspectors toured the Rantoul plant in late April and found employees standing shoulder to shoulder with no barriers or rushing in and out of break rooms. They crowded at sinks, which often lacked hot water. Many didn’t wear masks over their mouths and noses.


The plant, which at the time knew of just one COVID-19 case among its employees, responded to the findings by hiring one person per shift to ensure workers properly wore masks. It also adjusted people on the line to social distance, set up break rooms outside and staggered lunch and break times, according to an email a Rantoul executive sent to the health department.


It was not enough.


Since the inspection, at least 87 Rantoul workers have tested positive for COVID-19. That’s nearly a quarter of the cases in Champaign County, which had a total of 435 positive tests as of Wednesday, according to the state’s health department.


With an outbreak in progress, the plant then reduced line speeds to half capacity, according to a company statement. And  Rantoul is “currently exploring the use of barriers between line employees to be in place before we ramp production speeds back up to previous levels.”


Even with those measures, it’s impossible for workers to stay far enough apart, said Julie Pryde, Champaign County’s health administrator. She’s  increased her office’s efforts to respond.


The health department retrained all its Spanish-speaking employees to trace contacts among Rantoul’s heavily immigrant workforce. And it has hired translators for at least five languages, including Lingala, a French Congolese dialect, and Q’anjob’al, from Guatemala.


Carpooling workers and crowded living conditions factored into the virus’s spread, Pryde said. But so did the company’s labor practices: Without paid sick leave, workers who brought in little money continued showing up, she said.


“Someone brought it in,” she said. “With no infection control measures in place, it just took off.”


A history of problems ...


Essential and expendable ...


Cheap labor, shared housing ...


‘Work while sick’ culture ...


Crowded, dangerous workplace ...


Tough choices for workers ...


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Meat plants still coronavirus hotspots after Tyson reveals quarter of NC plant tested positive

At least 15,300 reported positive COVID-19 cases have been connected to meatpacking facilities


By Audrey Conklin, FOXBusiness

May 21, 2020


Meat plants are still coronavirus hotspots, even as state lockdown restrictions ease and overall national case numbers begin to fall.


Tyson Foods Inc revealed on Wednesday that a quarter of its Wilkesboro, North Carolina, poultry facility tested positive for COVID-19 after facility-wide testing from May 6-9, according to a press release.


Out of 2,244 workers at the facility, 570 have tested positive for the virus — the majority of whom were asymptomatic, according to the company.


"We are working closely with local health departments to protect our team members and their families and to help manage the spread of the virus in our communities," Tyson Senior Vice President of Health and Safety Tom Brower said in a statement. "We are using the most up-to-date data and resources to support our team members, and we are committed to ensuring they feel safe and secure when they come to work."


The Wilkesboro plant is one of more than 30 Tyson facilities in the U.S. that have rolled out advanced testing capabilities and on-site care options with Matrix Medical Network, a care management company.


Wilkesboro workers have access to daily screenings and nurse practitioners, and the facility has partnered with health care case management provider Axiom Medical to track employee symptoms and help provide care...


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