Meat processing facilities take actions to protect workers

New CDC report shows COVID-19 diagnoses in 9.1% of meat and poultry workers.

Jacqui Fatka, Policy editor

July 8, 2020

6 Min Read
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Overall, 239 meat and poultry processing facilities reported 16,233 COVID-19 cases and 86 COVID-19-related deaths among workers, according to a new report out from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Despite media reports, though, major meat and poultry processing plants are taking extensive measures to keep their workers healthy.

Among 14 states reporting the total number of workers in affected facilities, 9.1% of 112,616 workers received diagnoses of COVID-19, and the number of workers with COVID-19 ranged from 3.1% to 24.5% per facility.

Among seven facilities that implemented facility-wide testing, the crude prevalence of asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic infections among 5,572 workers who had positive SARS-CoV-2 test results was 14.4%. The pooled prevalence estimated from the model for the proportion of asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic infections among workers in meat and poultry processing facilities was 11.2%, according to CDC.

In coordination with state and local health agencies, many meat and poultry processing facilities have implemented interventions to reduce transmission or prevent ongoing exposure within the workplace, including offering testing to workers.

CDC said expanding interventions across these facilities nationwide might help protect workers in this industry. Recognizing the interaction of workplace and community, many facilities have also educated workers about strategies for reducing transmission of COVID-19 outside the workplace.

Among 239 facilities reporting cases, information on interventions and prevention efforts was available for 111 (46%) facilities from 14 states. Overall, 89 (80%) facilities reported screening workers upon entry, 86 (77%) required all workers to wear face coverings, 72 (65%) increased the availability of hand hygiene stations, 70 (63%) educated workers on community spread and 69 (62%) installed physical barriers between workers. Forty-one (37%) of 111 facilities offered testing for SARS-CoV-2 to workers, while 24 (22%) reported closing temporarily as an intervention measure.

The major meat companies – Smithfield, Tyson, Cargill and National Beef – were recently targeted in a letter from Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) and Cory Booker (D., N.J.) accusing the companies of taking actions that put their workers in harm’s way.

“Your companies created the conditions that left your workers and the supply chain vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic – but instead of addressing them, you used the prospect of food shortages to secure a federal license to put your workers in harm’s way. The dangerous conditions in your plants, including a lack of social distancing and a ‘work while sick’ culture, led them to become COVID-19 hotspots as early as March,” the senators’ letter stated. “By April, thousands of your workers had fallen ill, leading to slowdowns and shutdowns in nearly three dozen plants that hampered meat production and threatened supply. Upon reopening, many plants failed to implement worker protections, like testing and social distancing.”

In response to the letters, Cargill noted that it implemented daily screening prior to personnel entering the plant and also initiated temperature screening. In addition, it has increased sanitation throughout the day in all common areas and office spaces as well as additional sanitation each night. Cargill also said it has installed protective barriers on the production floor between employees and provides full face shields for personnel performing any job where the installation of a protective barrier is not feasible due to the movements inherent in the performance of the job. The company provides standard-issue face masks as well and has made their use mandatory.

Smithfield said it, too, has adopted a series of stringent and detailed processes, protocols and protective measures that follow -- and, in many cases, exceed -- CDC guidelines. In Smithfield’s response to the senators, which was also signed by hundreds of its leadership team and represented more than 42,000 team members, Smithfield president and chief executive officer Kenneth Sullivan stated, “Your letter is fraught with misinformation about our company and industry that appears to be strictly gleaned from media outlets that have made statements and inferences that grossly mischaracterize us, our values and response to COVID-19.”

Smithfield said it has provided $120 million for responsibility bonuses to all of its production and distribution center team members, and employees who miss work due to COVID-19 receive the responsibility bonus as well.

Sullivan’s candid response noted that social distancing is the biggest challenge the meat industry faces, because plants typically are designed to maximize space and efficiency. “Please understand, processing plants were no more designed to operate in a pandemic than hospitals were designed to produce pork. In other words, for better or worse, our plants are what they are: four walls, engineered design, efficient use of space, etc.,” he wrote.

Smithfield, similar to others, has had to adapt its facilities as fast as possible to mitigate the risk of virus transmissions. “Where social distancing is not possible, we have erected physical barriers or expanded common areas like lunch and locker rooms with temporary structures like tents. We are encouraging employees to observe all hygiene and safety protocols with signage all over our processing facilities. We are screening employees for temperature, garbing employees with frocks, boots, masks, permanent face shields, hard hats and face/hair nets, among other protections,” Sullivan wrote.

He also stated the company has paid more than 22,000 employees to stay home at various points since the onset of the pandemic. In addition, nearly 3,000 employees age 60 or older have been paid to stay home for months until the risk is reduced. “These are some of our most experienced and best employees, and it has put tremendous strain on our operations,” Sullivan wrote.

The findings in the CDC report are subject to at least seven limitations.

First, only 28 of 50 states responded; 23 states with COVID-19 cases among meat and poultry processing facility workers submitted data for this report. In addition, only facilities with at least one laboratory-confirmed case of COVID-19 among workers were included. Thus, these results might not be representative of all U.S. meat and poultry processing facilities and workers.

Second, delays in identifying workplace outbreaks and linking cases or deaths to outbreaks might have resulted in an underestimation of the number of affected facilities and cases among workers. Third, data were not reported on variations in testing availability and practices, which might influence the number of cases reported.

Fourth, industry data were used for race/ethnicity comparisons; demographic characteristics of total worker populations in affected facilities were not available, limiting the ability to quantify the degree to which some racial and ethnic minority groups might be disproportionately affected by COVID-19 in this industry. Reported frequencies of demographic and symptom data likely underestimate the actual prevalence because of missing data, which limits the conclusions that can be drawn from descriptive analyses.

Fifth, information on interventions and prevention efforts was available for a subset of affected facilities and, therefore, might not be generalizable to all facilities. Information was subject to self-report by facility management, and all available intervention efforts might not have been captured. Further evaluation of the extent of control measures and timing of implementations is needed to assess effectiveness of control measures.

Sixth, symptom data collected at facility-wide testing was self-reported and might have been influenced by the presence of employers.

Finally, workers in this industry are members of their local communities, and their source of exposure and infection could not be determined; for those living in communities experiencing widespread transmission, exposure might have occurred within the surrounding community as well as at the work site.

About the Author(s)

Jacqui Fatka

Policy editor, Farm Futures

Jacqui Fatka grew up on a diversified livestock and grain farm in southwest Iowa and graduated from Iowa State University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications, with a minor in agriculture education, in 2003. She’s been writing for agricultural audiences ever since. In college, she interned with Wallaces Farmer and cultivated her love of ag policy during an internship with the Iowa Pork Producers Association, working in Sen. Chuck Grassley’s Capitol Hill press office. In 2003, she started full time for Farm Progress companies’ state and regional publications as the e-content editor, and became Farm Futures’ policy editor in 2004. A few years later, she began covering grain and biofuels markets for the weekly newspaper Feedstuffs. As the current policy editor for Farm Progress, she covers the ongoing developments in ag policy, trade, regulations and court rulings. Fatka also serves as the interim executive secretary-treasurer for the North American Agricultural Journalists. She lives on a small acreage in central Ohio with her husband and three children.

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