The 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, and that many meatpacking company executives, when faced with staggeringly high numbers of infections among their workers, prioritized profits and production over worker safety, continuing to employ practices that led to crowded facilities in which the virus spread easily.
Newly obtained documents from five of the largest meatpacking conglomerates, which represent over 80 percent of the market for beef and over 60 percent of the market for pork in the United States—JBS USA Food Company (JBS), Tyson Foods, Inc. (Tyson), Smithfield Foods (Smithfield), Cargill Meat Solutions Corporation (Cargill), and National Beef Packing Company, LLC (National Beef)—reveal that during the first year of the pandemic, at least 59,000 employees of these five meatpacking companies contracted the coronavirus—almost triple the 22,700 infections previously estimated for these companies—while at least 269 of these companies’ employees died.
The coronavirus pandemic exacerbated the already hazardous working conditions within some of the nation’s meatpacking plants, forcing workers to risk their personal health and safety—and that of their families and communities—as they worked in crowded conditions to try to keep America fed. The Select Subcommittee launched its investigation in February 2021 to understand the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on workers in the meatpacking industry.
The Select Subcommittee found:
Coronavirus Infections and Deaths Were Significantly Higher Than Previously Disclosed
- Across the five companies reviewed, at least 59,000 meatpacking workers were infected with the coronavirus during the first year of the pandemic—almost triple the 22,700 infections previously estimated for these companies based on publicly available information compiled by the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN).
- At least 269 meatpacking workers lost their lives to the coronavirus during the first year of the pandemic—nearly three times higher than what was previously estimated for these companies by FERN.
- 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.
New Documents Reveal that Meatpacking Companies Failed to Address Coronavirus Outbreaks and Dismissed Worker Concerns
- 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.
- For example, an internal document from Tyson obtained by the Select Subcommittee show that on March 20, 2020, Tyson had not begun to conduct temperature checks, but nonetheless was telling its workers “It is vital that you come to work as planned, despite stories about ‘shelter in place.’”
- An internal communication obtained for the first time by the Select Subcommittee shows that on April 21, 2020, Smithfield executives were vigorously pushing back on federal and state government recommendations for coronavirus precautions at meatpacking plants. In a draft memorandum from the CDC to the South Dakota Department of Health documenting a CDC inspection of the Smithfield’s Sioux Falls facility, the Chief Executive Officer of Smithfield flagged 15 CDC recommendations for the facility as “problematic,” including “actions to physically separate employees.”
- Some company executives continued to insist that facilities were safe despite the well-known risks associated with meatpacking facility conditions. In a May 14, 2020, email, an executive for Koch Foods discussed with two trade group representatives his view that “work is probably the safest place [the workers] go everyday.” A trade group representative responded: “I firmly believe that the safest place for employees IS in the plant.”
- Some meatpacking companies also did not take sufficiently swift action to address coronavirus-related safety issues. For example, internal Tyson talking points show that on March 20, 2020, Tyson had not even begun to conduct temperature checks, but nonetheless was telling its workers: “It is vital that you come to work as planned, despite stories about ‘shelter in place.’” As late as May 2, 2020, Tyson’s facilities continued to feature a startling lack of coronavirus precautions, with the Amarillo, Texas plant being observed by the CDC to have workers with masks “saturated” from sweat or other fluids, and in lines where workers were not socially distanced and separated only by flimsy “plastic bags on frames” as opposed to CDC-compliant barriers.