Meatpacking Plants Linked to Up to 8% of Early U.S. COVID Cases

By | November 27, 2020

As many as one in 12 cases of Covid-19 in the early stage of the pandemic in the U.S. can be tied to outbreaks at meatpacking plants and subsequent spread in surrounding communities, according to a study.

The findings highlight the risk of workplace infections not just to employees but also in seeding outbreaks that expand through the local area.

The data show “a strong positive relationship” between meatpacking plants and “local community transmission” in cases through late July, suggesting the plants act as “transmission vectors” and “accelerate the spread of the virus,” according to the study by researchers at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.

The conclusions draw attention to the role of the meatpacking industry in the pandemic and the Trump administration’s controversial approach to workplace safety as outbreaks at slaughterhouses emerged. Trump issued an executive order on April 28 directing meatpackers to reopen closed facilities, and the administration eschewed mandatory Covid-19 safety regulation, opting instead for voluntary industry guidelines.

David Michaels, who headed the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration under Barack Obama, said the study is “further evidence that workplace exposures play an important role in driving the pandemic in the U.S.”

“If we don’t make workplaces safe, it will be difficult to stop the pandemic, save lives and reopen the economy,” said Michaels, now a professor at George Washington University.

Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, said the study “makes clear the Trump administration cares more about industry profits than protecting America’s frontline workers in the meatpacking industry.”

Later Improvements

Sarah Little, a spokeswoman for the North American Meat Institute, an industry trade association, said meatpackers have invested “more than $1 billion so far in significant changes and improvements regarding Covid-19 prevention,” and the study doesn’t account for the impact later in the year.

“The authors fail to capture the downward trend of positive cases associated with the meat and poultry industry into the summer and fall, especially in contrast to the positive cases reaching new highs around the nation,” Little added.

Ashley Peterson, senior vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the National Chicken Council, another industry trade group, said the “vast majority” of infections and deaths documented in the study were people who didn’t work at poultry or meat plants, which “highlights the fact that individuals are more likely exposed to Covid-19 due to community spread.”

Press representatives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture didn’t respond to requests for comment.

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Slaughterhouses quickly became hot spots of a pandemic initially centered in coastal urban areas, as the processing plants’ often poorly paid, heavily immigrant workforce labored in crowded facilities — sometimes shoulder-to-shoulder. Even as health authorities urged social distancing and isolation of infected people, many plants offered perfect-attendance bonuses to discourage employees from taking sick days.

By late July, the pandemic was shifting to rural regions in the country’s second wave of infections. States with a heavy presence of meatpacking facilities such as South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota now have among the highest concentration of new cases by population. The virus is now spreading at record rates, with more than 12 million positive cases and more than 247,000 dead.

The peer-reviewed study, published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S., found that the risk of excess death was primarily associated with large meatpacking plants operated by industry giants. Communities that acted to temporarily shut down slaughterhouses reduced spread, according to the researchers.

Community Spread

Overall, the researchers found 236,000 to 310,000 Covid-19 cases through July 21 associated with “proximity to livestock plants,” comprising 6% to 8% of virus cases at the time. Between 4,300 and 5,200 Covid-19 deaths were in counties near a large meat-processing plant, representing about 3% to 4% of U.S. deaths in that time period. The researchers used the latest data available when the authors submitted the report.

“The vast majority” of those cases were “likely related to community spread outside these plants,” the researchers wrote.

Residents of counties with meatpacking plants were 51% more likely to have contracted the coronavirus by July 21 and 37% more likely to die from the virus, even when corrected for risk factors including race, ethnic background, average income, household size, portion of workers in frontline jobs, elderly population and population in prisons and nursing homes, the researchers found.

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The researchers also found plants that received waivers from the USDA to increase their production-line speeds had relatively more county-wide cases. Earlier this month, the department submitted a proposal to raise maximum line speeds nationwide for chicken processing. Peterson, of the National Chicken Council, said only 2% of a plant’s work on evisceration lines and the trade group “remains confident” line speeds don’t affect Covid-19 transmission.

“Ensuring both public health and robust essential supply chains may require an increase in meatpacking oversight and potentially a shift toward more decentralized, smaller-scale meat production,” the researchers concluded.

–With assistance from Michael Hirtzer.

Top Photo: An employee handles sides of pork on a conveyor at a Smithfield Foods Inc. pork processing facility in Milan, Missouri, U.S., on Wednesday, April 12, 2017. WH Group Ltd. acquired Virginia-based Smithfield, the world’s largest pork producer, in 2013 for $6.95 billion. As Smithfield can’t export sausage, ham and bacon from its U.S. factories, because China prohibits imports of processed meat, WH Group opened an 800 million-yuan ($116 million) factory in Zhengzhou that will produce 30,000 metric tons of those meats when it reaches full capacity next year. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

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