Oct 27, 2021 - Health

COVID cases, deaths at meat plants were far higher than previously thought

Tyson Foods in Portland, Maine.
Tyson Foods in Portland, Maine, in 2020. Photo: Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Cases and deaths from COVID-19 among workers at the five largest U.S. meatpacking companies were nearly three times higher than previously thought, according to a memo from the House panel probing the response to the pandemic.

Driving the news: At least 59,000 workers contracted COVID-19 and 269 workers died at Tyson Foods, JBS USA, Cargill, National Beef and Smithfield Foods — which together make up more than 80% of the beef market and 60% of the pork market in the U.S. — according to counts through January of this year.

  • The Food and Environment Reporting Network previously estimated 22,700 infections and 88 deaths among workers at the five companies as of Sept. 8, per the memo, which was based on documents from the meatpacking conglomerates and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Between the lines: The total number of COVID-19 infections and deaths at the companies may be even higher, "as the data provided to the Select Subcommittee in some instances excludes coronavirus cases confirmed by offsite testing or employee self-reported cases," per a press release from the subcommittee.

The big picture: The updated figures come after several meatpacking plants were forced to temporarily close their doors during the pandemic due to outbreaks among employees.

  • The subcommittee report also documented lax COVID-19 protocols at some companies, including at Tyson Foods.
  • A Tyson facility in Amarillo, Texas, for instance, appeared to "have workers with masks 'saturated' from sweat or other fluids, and in lines where workers were not socially distanced and separated only by flimsy 'plastic bags on frames,'" per the report.

What they're saying: A Tyson Foods spokesperson said the company has taken action to protect workers, "including extensive testing and a vaccine requirement that has led to over 96% of our U.S. workforce being vaccinated."

  • A spokesperson for Smithfield Foods said the company "moved immediately in the earliest days of the pandemic – even before any direction from health officials – to implement worker safety measures," and that it tested employees before tests were widely available.
  • "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. The feedback from these visits has been overwhelmingly supportive of our approach," said Cargill spokesperson Daniel Sullivan.
  • Representatives for JBS USA and National Beef did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Go deeper: 96% of Tyson Foods employees vaccinated ahead of mandate deadline

Editor's note: This post was updated to include comments from meatpacking companies.

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