What NOT To Do When You Go Back to Work. A Lesson from Meat Processing Plants


Sana Kazilbash, Engineering.com

July 28, 2020


If you got uneasy about your supply of toilet paper, you will panic when you hear what is happening to meat production. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused such a major disruption in meat processing, forcing the closing of one meat processing plant after another, that if it were to keep up, we will be on the brink of an all-out meat shortage.


Over the course of months starting in April, dozens of meat packaging plants across North America have experienced temporary shutdowns due to coronavirus outbreaks among employees. Shortfalls in the meat supply are already happening. Fast food chain Wendy's, which boasts of only using fresh beef in its hamburgers, is running out at nearly a fifth of its 1,043 U.S. locations. Supermarket chains such as Kroger, Costco, Albertsons and Hy-Vee are limiting the amount of fresh meat purchases that consumers can make at their stores. Industry experts are predicting that the shutdown of meat processing facilities could prompt another round of hoarding at grocery stores, as with toilet paper.

“As pork, beef and chicken plants are being forced to close, even for short periods of time, millions of pounds of meat will disappear from the supply chain,” says John Tyson, Chairman of Tyson Foods, in a full-page ad published by The Washington Post. “The food supply chain is breaking.”


Kenneth M. Sullivan, CEO of Smithfield Foods, similarly cautions that the United States is “perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply.”


Around 20 major U.S. meat processing plants have closed during the past few weeks, cutting U.S. beef and pork production by about 35% from the same period last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Agricultural lender CoBank estimates that chicken production has fallen by 7%, while USDA figures show that 935,000 fewer cattle, hogs and sheep were sent to meat processing plants within one week when compared with the same time last year.


Decades of consolidation within the U.S. meat industry have given outsize importance to a relatively small number of meat processing plants, which have the capacity to slaughter more than a million animals a year. These massive plants typically process about 3,000 to 4,000 animals a day, in contrast to local meat producers who can only process 10 to 20. It is estimated that a little more than 50 plants are responsible for as much as 98 percent of slaughtering and processing in the United States.


Due to the shutdowns of these large-scale meat packaging factories, farmers are being left with a surplus of livestock which they cannot afford to process, house, or feed. The situation has already led to mass cullings on farms. Delmarva Poultry Industry in Maryland and Delaware was one of the first producers forced to euthanize 2 million of their chickens in early April. In Iowa—the biggest pork-producing state in the U.S.—farmer Al Van Beek had no choice but to individually inject pregnant sows in order to abort 7,500 piglets that were expected from his breeding operation. Minnesota farmers Kerry and Barb Mergen had to kill 61,000 laying hens because they were unable to get them processed by Daybreak Foods.


According to a report published by CoBank, U.S. hog producers may be forced to cull up to 7 million pigs in the second quarter of 2020. Iowa's political leaders warn that the numbers could be as high as 700,000 pigs a week. All told, the pandemic will result in the loss of millions of chickens, pigs and cattle, further reducing meat supplies.


How Many Meat Processing Plants Have Been Affected By COVID-19? ...


How is COVID-19 spreading in these factories? ...


Meat processing has been declared an essential service, and factories are beginning to reopen. What guidelines should meat plants implement when moving forward with manufacturing? ...  


Long-term considerations for meat plants ...


Predictions for the future of meat ...


References ...


more, including tables, infographics, links, audio [13:03 min.]  




As COVID-19 spread in NC meatpacking plants, workplace complaints piled up


By NC Watchdog Reporting Network

via The News & Observer (NC) - July 28, 2020


In April, a worker at Pilgrim’s Pride poultry processing plant in Sanford called workplace safety regulators to complain that the plant wasn’t notifying employees when other staffers tested positive for the coronavirus.


A few weeks later, a worker at a Smithfield Foods pork plant in Tar Heel called to report that the plant wouldn’t allow workers to wear masks.


In early July, a worker at Tyson Farms in Monroe reported that the meatpacking company had “reinstituted the point system for absences” making “employees feel that they are being forced to work, even when they feel sick.”


Since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, state and federal regulators have received dozens of calls and emails from workers in meat-packing plants across North Carolina who were concerned that these facilities were putting workers at risk.


The N.C. Department of Labor, the agency charged with investigating most workplace health and safety complaints, has found no safety violations at any of the plants and issued no citations or penalties. That’s despite repeated complaints raising the same issues – lack of social distancing, insufficient personal protective equipment and workers being forced to work even when they’re sick.


The department has received 75 complaints and referrals related to COVID-19 and the meat packing industry through July 15. None have prompted a site visit, according to Scott Mabry, assistant deputy commissioner at the N.C. DOL.


To some experts and advocates, that means regulators aren’t doing enough to keep workers safe.


Workplace safety regulators at the federal level and in most states including North Carolina aren’t doing enough to enforce COVID-19-related precautions in meat-processing facilities or set regulatory mandates, said Matthew Johnson, assistant professor of economics at the Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy.


“This inaction is remarkable given that COVID represents the largest occupational safety and health crisis of (at least) the last century,” Johnson said in an email.


A site visit would be prompted if an employer failed to provide DOL with an “adequate response” to a complaint inquiry, Mabry said. Although he said follow-up complaints would prompt the agency to re-examine an employer, “so far, the responses have been adequate.”


“When we get a complaint, if the answer is adequate, we take them at their word for it, and deem it to be closed unless we get further information or some lack of information in order to be able to go into a site,” Mabry said. “I have to believe that you’re telling me the truth.”


Some complaints still pending ...


Meat processing facilities continue to be vectors of spread ...


Overlapping jurisdictions create regulatory gray area ...


Advocates: Regulators should do more ...


more, including links, maps, charts, audio [13:22 min.]