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Covid cases and deaths grossly underestimated among meatpackers, House investigation finds

The coronavirus infected 59,000 workers at the country’s top meatpacking companies and killed more than 250, lawmakers found

Workers wait to enter the Tyson Foods pork-processing plant in Logansport, Ind., in 2020. (Michael Conroy/AP)
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More workers at the country’s top five meatpacking companies were sickened and died of the coronavirus than had been previously estimated, an investigation by the House select subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis has found.

At least 59,000 workers at Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods, JBS, Cargill and National Beef — companies that control the lion’s share of the U.S. meat market — were infected with the coronavirus during the pandemic’s first year, according to a report the subcommittee released Wednesday on its findings. At least 269 workers across these companies died of covid-19 between March 1, 2020, and Feb. 1.

The report, which stems from an investigation the subcommittee launched in February, alleges that the country’s top meatpackers failed to protect workers, allowing the virus to spread quickly in the close quarters of processing and packing plants. Workers were pushed to show up while ill, The Washington Post has reported, turning many facilities into covid hot spots. Dozens of plants were forced to close during the pandemic’s first wave, throttling production and sending ripples across the supply chain.

“Instead of addressing the clear indications that workers were contracting the coronavirus at alarming rates due to conditions in meatpacking facilities, meatpacking companies prioritized profits and production over worker safety,” lawmakers said in the report.

More than half of the total infections — nearly 29,500 — were tied to Tyson Foods. In an email, the company told The Post it had invested more than $810 million since the beginning of the pandemic to transform its facilities and make workers safer. The Arkansas-based company has been a leader in vaccinations; in August, it became the first major food company to enact a vaccination mandate for its 120,000 U.S. workers.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has been an unprecedented and unpredictable global public health crisis, and we will continue to evolve our response, following CDC guidance, to protect our team members, their families and our communities,” Tyson said in a statement, referring to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Ninety-six percent of Tyson’s team members were vaccinated as of Tuesday, chief executive Donnie King told employees in a note.

JBS, the world’s largest meat producer, told The Post in an email that it has invested more $760 million in employee health and safety in the pandemic. The company said it has “adopted hundreds of safety measures that often outpaced federal guidance and industry standards,” including requiring masks for all workers and covering worker health care costs.

An estimated 334,000 coronavirus cases nationwide have been tied to meatpacking plants, resulting in more than $11 billion in economic damage, according to research from the University of California at Davis. Researchers found that per capita infection rates in counties that were home to beef- and pork-processing facilities were twice as high. Chicken-processing facilities raised transmissions by 20 percent.

Smithfield Foods told The Post it had implemented more than 90 percent of health and safety recommendations before public health officials released guidance for the meatpacking industry.

“We continue [to] enhance and implement worker safety protocols to this day, evolving as understanding of and defense against the virus have grown,” Smithfield’s vice president of corporate affairs, Jim Monroe, said in a statement emailed to The Post.

In a statement, Cargill said employee safety was its top priority but acknowledged the “tragic impacts” on its workers and the communities where the company operates.

Still, “We have operated in a manner that meets or exceeds the federal government’s health and safety standards issued for meat processors and have hosted several governmental agencies for tours of our protein facilities,” Cargill said in the statement emailed to The Post. “The feedback from these visits has been overwhelmingly supportive of our approach.”

National Beef did not immediately respond to request for comment.

Estimates from the Food and Environment Reporting Network, which had been widely used by media outlets and lawmakers to track the crisis, had pegged infections at under 30,000 earlier this year. The investigative nonprofit’s tracking efforts drew on publicly available data and news reports to track the coronavirus’s impact on meat plants across the United States.

The House select subcommittee investigation involved data on deaths and infections from meatpacking companies, as well as a review of more than 150,000 pages of documents, including worker complaints, local health department inquiries, internal communications from executives and more.

Internal documents from Smithfield revealed that executives pushed back “vigorously” against federal and state recommendations for coronavirus precautions, the subcommittee investigation found. And as the virus’s first wave raged, executives at several companies continued to insist that work was “safe.”

“The full extent of coronavirus infections and deaths at these meatpacking companies was likely much worse than these figures suggest,” lawmakers cautioned, because data from companies often excluded cases confirmed by off-site testing and self-reported cases.

Lax regulatory efforts also played a role in the crisis, lawmakers learned. Under the Trump administration’s leadership, the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration — the chief agency charged with protecting the safety of American workers — made a “political decision” not to issue an enforceable regulatory standard that would have forced meatpackers to step up safety, lawmakers found. The agency issued just nine citations to three meatpacking companies with severe outbreaks in 2020 and scaled back inspections by 35 percent, according to the report.

“Without being held to any specific standard, meatpacking companies were left with largely unchecked discretion to determine how to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, to the detriment of meatpacking workers,” the report states.