Covid-19 cases appear to be slowing at meat plants. But companies aren’t releasing test results

Since the pandemic began, FERN has counted over 37,000 cases and 168 deaths among meatpacking workers.


By Leah Douglas, Successful Farming - 7/27/2020


 After many months of surging cases, the number of new COVID-19 infections reported at meatpacking plants appears to have slowed. Yet with limited information from the major meatpackers on new cases at their facilities, advocates say it isn’t clear whether the trend reflects a true decline.


Since the pandemic began, FERN has counted over 37,000 cases and 168 deaths among meatpacking workers. But of the nearly 200 meatpacking plant outbreaks FERN has mapped since April, just four were added since July 7.


Yet that plateau in new reported outbreaks could be related to whether or not workers are being tested, and not necessarily to a decrease in the spread of the virus, says Dr. Keeve Nachman, an associate professor of public health at Johns Hopkins University. Nachman helped author a May policy brief from the university’s Center for a Livable Future on how to protect food system workers from COVID-19 with testing and treatment measures.


“Many of these workers are low-paid, have limited access to resources, and might rely on things like company housing and company transportation. And in a lot of cases, there may not be adequate measures taken to prevent the spread of coronavirus,” he says of the working conditions at meatpacking plants. “You have people who are forced to make the decision between potentially losing their job or going to work sick.”


In those difficult conditions, regular testing is recommended to curtail the spread of COVID-19, according to Nachman’s brief. Yet the three largest meatpackers — JBS, Smithfield, and Tyson Foods — responsible for nearly 40% of the sector’s COVID-19 cases, have released little information about their future plans to test workers or release the results of testing.


JBS, which has had outbreaks at 12 plants, has several times delayed or declined testing at its facilities. There have been at least 2,660 COVID-19 cases and 14 deaths in the company’s workforce. JBS did not respond to an interview request for this story.


Smithfield, which has had outbreaks at 13 plants resulting in at least 2,004 cases and six deaths, says it has testing available for workers at any time, and has reported positive cases to local health departments. But the company is not releasing the results of those tests to the public. The company has also attempted to quash a subpoena from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to the state of South Dakota that would disclose the number of cases at Smithfield’s plants in the state.


Tyson Foods was applauded when it announced this spring that it would be testing workers at several of its facilities. In press releases, the company said that its “extensive program of prevention and testing” was being rolled out in “more than 40 U.S. locations” in partnership with Matrix Medical Network, a private healthcare provider. Tyson ultimately released testing figures from 18 plants, and the most recent results were announced on June 26.


But Tyson is not planning to release test results from any other plants, according to company spokesman Worth Sparkman. Sparkman clarified that the company had “facilitated” but didn’t necessarily implement staff-wide testing at 40 locations. Tyson has about 122,000 workers in its meatpacking plants, and says it has conducted about 40,000 tests.


Magaly Licolli, who organizes poultry workers in northwest Arkansas with the worker advocacy group Venceremos, says that the lack of testing at Tyson plants concerns workers. “There are reports that cases are decreasing, but workers keep seeing workers getting sick,” she says. “There is no tracing … there is no quarantine whatsoever going on anymore. Workers want the company [to keep] testing. The pandemic is not over.”


Licolli estimates that the spread of the virus...


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Covid-19 shows no sign of slowing among food-system workers


By Leah Douglas, Food & Environment Reporting Network (FERN)

June 22, 2020


The nation is in various stages of reopening as the number of new Covid-19 cases falls in some regions. Yet among the vulnerable workers who produce our food, the pandemic is still raging. A new analysis of data collected by FERN since mid-April shows that the virus is spreading steadily among workers in meatpacking and food processing plants and at farms, and many states are experiencing outbreaks in multiple food and farm sectors.


Since April 22, FERN has counted over 32,000 Covid-19 cases and 109 deaths among food-system workers. The true count is likely much higher, as data irregularities, including the industry’s reticence to share data about worker illness and the inconsistent availability of state figures, make it impossible to know exactly how many workers have contracted the virus. But the trend line below illustrates that there has not been a flattening in the number of new reported Covid-19 cases in the sector at any point since the pandemic began.


The ongoing spread of Covid-19 among food-sector workers has contributed to rising infection rates in many rural communities, even as major metropolitan areas see the virus’ spread abating. Analysis by FERN and Daily Yonder found that, in rural communities with meatpacking plants that have had Covid-19 outbreaks, the infection rate is five times higher on average than in other rural counties.


Cases are rising across all three of the major food industry sectors that FERN is tracking: meatpacking, food processing, and farms. Since April 22, FERN has counted a cumulative total of 27,138 cases among meatpacking workers, 2,190 among food-processing workers, and 2,771 among farmworkers. These are the most comprehensive figures available, though even these tallies do not account for some known hot spots — like Immokalee, Florida, where the virus is spreading among farmworkers but specific case counts are not available.


Workers in the food sector are disproportionately low-income, people of color, and immigrants. In the meatpacking industry, nearly three quarters of workers are Hispanic or Black, and nearly half are immigrants, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research.


The meatpacking industry has had the highest number of reported Covid-19 outbreaks. According to FERN’s analysis, 249 plants have been affected — 65 percent of the total recorded food sector outbreaks — compared to 84 food-processing facilities and 46 farms.


Some states are seeing higher numbers of cases among food-system workers than others...


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