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Why meatpacking plants have become coronavirus hot spots

Meatpacking facilities are inherently susceptible to Covid-19 outbreaks.

Cattle at a large facility in Coalinga, California, on April 30.
Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

Meatpacking plants have unexpectedly become the epicenters of coronavirus outbreaks in rural communities, putting workers and their neighbors in peril and slowing meat production across the country.

Almost 5,000 plant workers across 19 states had tested positive for the virus as of April 27, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and based on anecdotal reports in local media, the virus has since continued to spread in the facilities. At least 20 workers have died. Some 22 plants consequently closed.

President Donald Trump nevertheless ordered the plants to stay open or reopen last month, and Bloomberg reported that infections have since risen in counties near large meatpacking facilities at more than twice the national rate. Communities in rural Texas and Nebraska have been particularly hard-hit.

The working conditions in meatpacking plants create a perfect storm for coronavirus transmission. Workers are unable to maintain the recommended 6 feet of distance on the processing floor, and they breathe heavily while hauling cuts of meat, possibly spreading virus particles in the cold air.

Companies that own these plants have sought to implement temperature checks and social distancing measures in common spaces outside the processing floor, as well as administer additional protective equipment. But it’s also possible that the virus is spreading outside the plants themselves, as low-wage, mostly immigrant workers live in crowded conditions and commute via public transit.

Consumers are seeing the effects at the grocery store and fast food restaurants. Meat and pork prices have jumped at least 3 percent. And while America isn’t at risk of running out of food generally, there have been spot shortages of meat such that some retailers, including Costco and Kroger, have started limiting the number of meat items that customers can purchase.

While Americans, who eat more meat than any other nation, may be reluctant to cut down on their consumption, keeping the plants open has meant putting workers and their communities at risk.

“The supply chain is struggling in a variety of ways, but the most vulnerable members of the supply chain in terms of livelihood and health are the farmers and the factory workers, not the consumers or grocery stores,” Julie Niederhoff, a supply chain management professor at Syracuse University, told Vox.

Meatpacking facilities are coronavirus incubators

None of the nation’s largest meat producers has managed to evade coronavirus unscathed.

Smithfield, the nation’s largest pork producer, has reported 783 cases and two deaths among workers at its Sioux Falls, South Dakota, plant, which closed April 14, three weeks after the first worker tested positive. JBS USA, which slaughters almost a quarter of the nation’s cattle, sent 6,000 of its at-risk workers home with pay after reporting hundreds of coronavirus cases across several plants that closed last month, and only some have since reopened.

Other large meat processors, including Cargill and Tyson Foods, have also been forced to shutter some of their facilities following outbreaks.

The phenomenon isn’t isolated to the US: There have been coronavirus outbreaks at meatpacking plants worldwide, including Canada, Spain, Ireland, Brazil, and Australia. Clearly, there is something inherent to the meatpacking industry that has made it a breeding ground for the coronavirus.

The facilities are highly sanitized and contained even under normal circumstances due to federal requirements for pathogen control and food safety. Julie Anna Potts, president and CEO of the North American Meat Institute, said there is complete disinfection of the facilities every night after the last shift. Workers have to wear hard hats, safety goggles, frocks, and boots.

But the facilities have certain characteristics that could be causing the coronavirus to spread more quickly.

The Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, is closed indefinitely in the wake of its coronavirus outbreak.
Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images

The virus is transmitted via respiratory droplets expelled while breathing or coughing. Someone could be infected after being in close proximity to a Covid-19 patient or touching a surface with viral particles and then touching their eyes, nose, or mouth.

On the production line, the workers are often standing shoulder to shoulder. What’s more, the CDC recently found that workers haven’t been wearing face masks correctly due to the “pace and physical demands of processing work,” only covering their mouths and frequently touching the mask to readjust it.

The CDC has recommended that plants increase the distance between workers on the production line, but workers have said that’s difficult unless the plants significantly reduce their capacity, as JBS has.

“There was no way to keep 6 feet apart because the belt is so fast,” one Smithfield worker told USA Today.

Studies have also suggested that to a certain extent the virus can spread through the air. The virus might be able to survive longer in meatpacking facilities because they have to be kept at very cold temperatures to ensure food safety, Sima Asadi, a chemical engineer at UC Davis, told Wired. These facilities also have complex ventilation systems that could transport airborne viral particles much farther than 6 feet away, potentially infecting even those people who abide by social distancing protocols.

But the risks of transmission go beyond conditions on the plant’s premises. Plant workers tend to commute together — sometimes on company-operated buses for over an hour — and live in multigenerational or shared housing. These outbreaks are therefore not just a crisis for plant workers themselves but also for their communities.

Workers are in peril

The workers in these plants are often low-income — one Smithfield employee reported making $17.70 an hour, though workers have been offered a $500 bonus if they don’t miss any shifts in April. Nearly half of them are immigrants, according to the left-leaning think tank New American Economy, and many of those immigrants aren’t eligible for unemployment benefits or government stimulus money through one of the coronavirus relief bills recently passed.

Their work is physically taxing even in the best of times, as they lift and slice through heavy cuts of meat. Now, it’s also potentially life-threatening: A 64-year-old Smithfield worker was among the reported industry deaths.

In addition to the protective equipment they have always been required to wear, they’re also wearing masks and face shields now — at least when the plants can obtain them — and they have been practicing social distancing where possible in cafeterias and places where the workers put on their protective equipment. Tyson Foods said it has also started taking employees’ temperatures either by hand or through infrared scanners. But on the processing floor, they’re standing shoulder to shoulder.

Employees have protested the lack of safe working conditions. Dozens of workers at a Perdue Farms facility in Kathleen, Georgia, staged a walkout in late March.

An anonymous employee at a Smithfield plant in Milan, Missouri, also filed a lawsuit against the company claiming that it had not provided enough protective equipment to its employees and that they were discouraged from taking sick leave. The company has denied the allegations, but a federal judge ordered it to abide by Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) safety guidelines last month.

“[M]anagers never blatantly asked me to risk my life just by showing up — until this pandemic,” the employee wrote in an April 24 op-ed in the Washington Post. “Now just coming to work puts us at risk of exposure to a virus that’s killing thousands of people every single day.”

Workers are also demanding that Congress take legislative action to protect their health and well-being. Hundreds of workers’ rights groups have urged Congress to pass a bill that would require OSHA to issue an emergency temporary standard to prevent the spread of coronavirus in the workplace.

Debbie Berkowitz, program director for worker safety and health with the National Employment Law Project, said in a statement that the administration should force meatpacking plants to adopt the latest CDC recommendations, which include altering the alignment of production lines so that workers can remain at least 6 feet apart. It should also issue new guidance on sanitation and protective gear, as well as how to enforce social distancing in break rooms and locker rooms.

“Without these necessary and common-sense protective measures, Covid-19 will continue to spread in these plants and the communities around them,” she said.

Hunter Ogletree, a co-executive director of the Western North Carolina Workers Center, which is advocating for workers in local poultry plants, said in a press call last month that workers are also pressing their employers to implement protective measures. They are requesting that poultry plants in their state provide at least two weeks of sick leave with full pay, distribute enhanced protective equipment, pay workers a “pandemic premium” of at least 1.5 times their normal hourly wage, and shield workers from retaliation should they voice concerns about their working conditions during the pandemic.

They are also seeking more transparency about the number of coronavirus cases that have been identified among plant employees.

“These poultry processing plants are being very secretive around the number of positive cases that are taking place in their plants,” Ogletree said. “We need to know how many and if there are positive cases in the plant because at the moment, it’s just rumors, and rumors create fear. It’s not conducive to the health and safety of all workers.”

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