Feb 1, 2021 - Economy

House panel probes coronavirus outbreaks at meatpacking plants

A sign outside the Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in South Dakota that says "walk-in interviews welcome"

A sign outside a Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Photo: Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images

A House panel is launching an investigation into meatpacking giants JBS, Tyson Foods and Smithfield Foods regarding the coronavirus outbreaks at their plants — plus OSHA's oversight of industry working conditions.

Why it matters: It's among the first congressional inquiries into the meatpacking industry and the spread of the coronavirus among its front-line workers — which researchers say also impacted surrounding communities.

Between the lines: The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, led by Rep. James Clyburn, also says OSHA did not do enough under the Trump administration in response to the outbreaks at the plants.

  • Other Democratic lawmakers have called out OSHA for a tepid response to outbreaks within meatpacking plants.

Catch up quick: Meatpacking plants were an early epicenter for coronavirus outbreaks, causing some plants to temporarily shut down.

  • In letters requesting documents from OSHA, JBS, Tyson Foods and Smithfield Foods, Clyburn says 54,000 workers across 569 plants got the coronavirus — and 270 of those workers have died.

What they're saying: JBS has "implemented hundreds of safety measures including constructing permanent physical barriers, establishing physical distancing protocols, and installing hospital-grade ventilation systems in all of our facilities," company spokesperson Cameron Bruett said in a statement to Axios.

  • Smithfield says it met "federal, state and local health and safety guidance" from early in the pandemic, noting that it looks forward to providing the House panel with "correct information" about the safety measures it took, Keira Lombardo, the company's chief administrative officer, said in a statement.
  • Tyson says it invested over a half-billion dollars during the pandemic "to transform our U.S. facilities with protective measures," Gary Mickelson, a Tyson Foods spokesperson, said in a statement. (Shares of Tyson Foods fell slightly on the news.)
  • Representatives at OSHA did not return a request for comment.
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