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January 2021, Volume 27, Number 1

Meat and Covid

Meatpacking is the largest industry in rural America. Over 500,000 people are employed in US meat and poultry processing, and there are 49 nonmetro counties where animal slaughtering and processing employment (NAICS 3116) is 20 percent or more of total employment. In these nonmetro meatpacking counties, a third of residents had below poverty level incomes between 2016 and 2018.

US meat processors handle nine billion chickens, 120 million hogs, and 33 million cattle each year.

The number of Covid cases reached 50 per 100,000 residents in April 2020 in nonmetro counties with high shares of meatpacking workers, and remained higher at 25 cases per 100,000 in September 2020, compared to 20 Covid cases per 100,000 in other nonmetro counties.

There were Covid-19 outbreaks in meatpacking plants in the US, Germany, and other countries in spring 2020. US plants closed in April 2020 for deep cleaning and the installation of plastic sheets between workers. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined several meatpackers less than $16,000 each for failing to maintain safe workplaces. JBS and Smithfield, the meatpackers cited by OSHA, contested the fines.

OSHA was criticized for its failure to inspect meatpackers more aggressively and the small fines levied, which OSHA says are the maximum allowed for a single serious violation.

Meatpackers Tyson, Cargill Inc. and JBS USA Holdings prepared for a Covid surge in winter 2020. JBS sent 200 at-risk workers at its 3,500 employee Greeley, Colorado beef plant home with pay in November 2020. Major meatpackers said they were testing many of their employees weekly for Covid and, after positive tests, testing employees who were near infected workers. Tyson’s new CEO came from Alphabet (Google), and is leading the firm’s efforts to automate dis-assembly lines for cows, pigs and chickens.

The son of a worker who died after contracting Covid at Tyson’s Waterloo pork processing plant alleged in a November 2020 suit that Tyson managers did not provide workers with protective gear and took bets on how many employees would contract Covid. Tyson suspended and later fired seven managers at its largest pork-processing plant, which processes 20,000 hogs a day.

Covid is speeding efforts to automate more processes in meatpacking plants. Smithfield Foods is the largest US pork processor, handling 130,000 hogs a day at 10 plants across the country, including a plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina that processes 35,000 hogs a day, is considering efforts to automate the removal of meat from carcasses.

Meatpacking automation is more advanced in China and Europe. Danish Crown has a more automated pork processing plant in Horsens that uses robots to kill, bleed, and remove meat from carcasses. At Danish Crown, the number of hogs processed per worker per week, 60, is double the 30 hogs per worker per week in Smithfield plants. Prestage Farms in Eagle Grove, Iowa has opened an automated pork processing plant using European equipment with similar 60 hogs per week per worker productivity.

Foster Farms, the largest chicken processor in California, has struggled to contain Covid in its facilities. The Merced County Health Department ordered one of the Foster Livingston plants to close for a week in September 2020 after 400 of the 3,700 workers tested positive for Covid and eight died. The United Farm Workers union, which represents Foster’s Livingston employees, sued Foster in December 2020, seeking a court order to require Foster to do more to protect its employees.

In December 2020, after 200 of the 1,400 workers in a Foster plant in Fresno tested positive, Foster closed the plant for a deep cleaning and promised to test employees twice a week after reopening.

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