When the coronavirus first started to spread rapidly in the U.S., it hit meat plants hard. From Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to Greeley, Colorado, many headlines focused on major outbreak clusters in facilities at some of the largest beef, pork and poultry producers in the country
Although the news about meat plants has slowed down since, the pandemic has not.
Over the last roughly eight months battling the pandemic, the largest meat companies in the country have spent hundreds of millions on COVID-19 precautions and tens of thousands of workers have been infected, while meat supply and pricing fluctuates.
Precautions put in place after early spikes have helped lower the number of reported cases at these facilities in recent months. Several major companies said they currently have less than 1% active COVID-19 cases in their workforce. But the meat industry has been rocked by the pandemic and its challenges are still expected to continue.
Keith Belk, head of Colorado State University’s animal sciences department, said the food industry and the supply chain was characterized as a critical need so most places “were sort of under the gun to stay operational and with that came some hard learning experiences.”
“Nobody was prepared for it and they've had a steep learning curve since,” Belk said. “We’re all still learning.”
Using data collected from company websites and documents, USDA, Food & Environment Reporting Network, and other sources, Food Dive looked at how some of the largest meat companies in the country have been impacted by the virus since it began to spread. The companies include Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods, Cargill Protein, Perdue Farms, JBS USA, and National Beef. Pilgrim’s Pride, which is majority owned by JBS, is also included. (Hormel was excluded because it is predominantly a CPG company and outsources hog processing.)
“The coronavirus pandemic created unprecedented challenges across our whole industry, from farms to facilities to delivering products to our customers, and when the pandemic hit there were no clear answers or clear direction on how to handle the many changes and unknowns,” Diana Souder, director of corporate communications and brand PR at Perdue Farms, said in an email. “There is no such thing as a perfect record in this pandemic, but we believe our efforts overall are having a meaningful impact.”
Although vaccine trials are delivering encouraging results, health experts are saying that additional surges in cases could be coming in winter. Here’s how companies have handled the virus so far and what they’ve learned as it continues to spread around the country.
Known positive cases across some of the largest meat companies in the US
Standing shoulder-to-shoulder on the processing line, before most pandemic precautions were in place, led to outbreaks. Looking at these major meatpacking companies, more than 20,000 workers were infected with the virus since the pandemic began, ranging from 3% to 18% of each company’s total workforce. The share was calculated by comparing the number of reported positive cases, compiled by the Food & Environment Reporting Network, to the total amount of workers at each company.
Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, said even before the pandemic, meatpacking and food processing workers have one of the most dangerous jobs in America, working at high speeds with sharp tools, putting them at risk of amputations, lacerations and ergonomic injuries.
“COVID is just basically all of that on steroids,” Goldstein-Gelb said.
The number of workers who have gotten sick at each company are likely just a snapshot, given different levels of testing and reporting at these companies and the scarce public data available, but the outbreaks forced companies to find additional ways to curb the spread.
In July, Tyson Foods announced a new testing and monitoring program at all 140 of its production facilities where it would test its workers for the coronavirus weekly. When its plan was announced, the president of UFCW urged others to do the same.
Other companies are doing randomized testing or testing when outbreaks occur. Cameron Bruett, head of corporate affairs at JBS USA & Pilgrim’s, said in an email that the company implemented free, random surveillance testing of asymptomatic team members across its U.S. facilities.
Bruett said surveillance testing gives them the opportunity to continually assess and validate the effectiveness of its “in-plant preventive measures and entrance screening protocols as the virus continues to spread across the country.”
Many say testing has helped to slow the spread of the virus in processing plants and has the potential to continue to do so heading into winter.
Tracking reported deaths among meatpacking workers
Many plants faced pressure to close as cases started to spike in April and some workers questioned whether going into work was a “death sentence.” Unions, activists, workers and family members criticized the meat industry’s response to the coronavirus for waiting too long to put additional safety measures in place and shutter plants as thousands tested positive. Since employees typically work side-by-side in slaughterhouses some of the changes that needed to be made took companies weeks and even months to implement. So far, nearly 80 workers across these meat companies died because of COVID-19.
On April 10, UFCW Local 7 Union President Kim Cordova wrote in a letter to JBS, the governor of Colorado and health officials calling an outbreak at a plant an "intolerable situation."
"No employee should be forced to work in circumstances which clearly jeopardize their health or even their lives," Cordova wrote. "We have consistently asked JBS to take appropriate measures consistent with the Center[s] for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines over the past several weeks, to little or no avail, until just very recently."
Employees who contracted the virus and families of workers who died from the coronavirus have started to file lawsuits against Smithfield Foods, Tyson Foods and other companies for the conditions in plants.
Meat companies invest heavily in COVID-19 costs
Over the last roughly eight months, some of the largest publicly owned meat companies have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to deal with the pandemic.
Bruett said JBS USA and Pilgrim’s have implemented hundreds of safety measures, including temperature checks, staggered start times, required use of masks and face shields, physical barriers where possible, UV germicidal air sanitation and plasma bipolar ionization technologies to neutralize potential viruses in the air. Other companies have enacted similar measures, but they come at a cost.
Bruett said JBS USA and Pilgrim’s have spent more than $190 million in health and safety measures, more than $160 million in increased wages and bonuses, and $50 million to support COVID-19 relief efforts.
Keira Lombardo, executive vice president at corporate affairs and compliance at Smithfield Foods, said in an email the company has spent more $600 million to date, which is the most of the companies evaluated.
“We believe the aggressive measures we have implemented to protect our employees’ health and safety during this pandemic have been effective,” Lombardo said. “This is witnessed by the fact that our current — and sustained — level of active COVID-19 cases among our employees remains a fraction of one percent.”
JBS’ Bruett similarly said that active cases among its workforce are currently less than half of 1% despite ongoing spread in many of the communities where its facilities are located. Tyson estimates that more than half of its U.S. workforce has now been tested for the virus and said that currently, less than 1% of its U.S. workforce has active COVID-19.
Tyson’s CEO Dean Banks said during an earnings call this week that the company has recorded $540 million in direct incremental COVID-19 costs for fiscal year 2020, including about $300 million in bonuses and other benefits for workers.
“At the onset of the pandemic, we launched an internal task force to address the virus. We made substantial investments in personal protective equipment, social distancing safeguards and other increased health and safety measures across our business. We’ve seen a dramatic reduction in active cases involving our team members since last spring,” Banks sad.
Tyson also created a chief medical officer position, bought more than 150 infrared walkthrough temperature scanners and has more than 500 social distance monitors in its facilities to track social distancing efforts and ensure PPE is worn properly.
Although Perdue and Cargill do not publicly release financial information because they are privately held, both companies said they are working to prioritize worker safety. A Cargill spokesperson said in an email that they have relied on the expertise and partnership of medical experts, while Perdue’s Souder said they are constantly reevaluating, adding new preventive measures and partnering with health authorities.
Two decades ago, Perdue established Wellness Centers at all of its facilities and those have served them well. “Right away, we extended the hours of those facilities and were able to rely on them for things like temperature checking and other precautions,” Souder said.
“We are doing everything we can to keep these numbers as low as possible, and based on the trends we are seeing, we believe our efforts are working, though of course, even one illness is too many,” Souder said.
Only two major meat companies have received federal OSHA fines
Of these meat companies, only two have received federal proposed fines from OSHA for not keeping the workplace "free from recognized hazards that can cause death or serious harm.”
The first fine to a meat plant went to a Smithfield facility in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where at least 1,294 Smithfield employees got the virus and four died. OSHA proposed a $13,494 fine.
Then the agency proposed three fines to JBS, including $15,615 to a plant in Colorado, $13,494 to a plant in Wisconsin and $1,928 to a Texas plant.
Both JBS and Smithfield have said that they shouldn’t have been cited for these violations because they followed OSHA’s guidance once it was available in late April.
Although companies also face fines from state health agencies, critics have called for larger and additional federal fines to meat plants for violations during the pandemic.
"Bottom line is they're completely inadequate," Goldstein-Gelb said. "The point of a fine is to send a message, to be a deterrent for future violations. And so having something that just ends up being a cost of doing business is basically encouraging continued lack of compliance."
Majority of meat plants stay open throughout the pandemic
From one-day-long deep cleaning shutdowns to weeks-long closures, at least 26 meat processing plants at these companies in the U.S. temporarily closed during the pandemic, but the majority of plants overall stayed open throughout.
When outbreaks occurred and plants closed, the supply chain backed up. Millions of hogs were euthanized, millions of chickens were culled and cattle grew overweight.
Belk said the beef industry is getting close to recovering, but they're not quite there yet gauging by the weight of animals at production. For example, in the beef industry right now they're still about 30 pounds higher than an average carcass weight over a year ago, Belk said.
Some companies have avoided that. Perdue’s Souder said over the past several years it has worked to establish regular communications with its farm families, and were able to space out their flocks and adjust pay rates to avoid culling birds.
Amount of meat produced fluctuates, but has largely returned to normal
As plants closed, executives at Tyson and Smithfield warned of supply issues and potential shortages. JBS USA CEO Andre Nogueira said in May he expected the pandemic to slow meat production in America for several months.
According to USDA data, the amount of beef produced in April and May of this year was nearly 20% lower than the previous year.
To alleviate supply concerns, President Donald Trump issued an executive order in April to designate meat plants as “critical infrastructure” and keep doors open. Just this month, Stampede Meat used Trump’s order to argue in court that its New Mexico plant shouldn’t be shut down despite an outbreak among employees.
Souder said the executive order “did not impact our operating philosophy, which is to make the health and well-being of our frontline associates our top priority.” Tyson said in an email the company temporarily idled plants last spring after the order was issued.
Plants are closing significantly less now and the amount of meat produced in recent months has leveled out. JBS USA said it was the first major meatpacking company to voluntarily close a facility in the U.S. and temporarily closed four during the pandemic, but all are now operational.
Along with operational changes, demand has changed. A Cargill spokesperson said the company has seen foodservice demand shift to retail while e-commerce has accelerated.
As wholesale and retail beef prices skyrocket, farmers' cut remains the same
When consumers were stocking up their fridges, meat sales were up. A study found that about 48% of shoppers surveyed purchased more meat during the first half of the year. As more people bought meat, prices spiked and Tyson dropped some beef prices for retailers after plant closures led to rising costs.
But as beef prices soared, cattle prices dropped. According to USDA data, retail beef prices were up about 23% and wholesale prices jumped roughly 86% from last May, while prices to farmers were down 7.5%.
In April, the USDA announced an investigation into why the rise in beef prices due to pandemic hoarding did not convert into higher cattle profits for farmers. By July, USDA said it could not then conclude whether the cattle industry violated the Packers and Stockyards Act.
Cattle associations have also urged the Department of Justice to launch an investigation into possible anti-competitive actions in the meat industry during this time. In June, DOJ reportedly subpoenaed Tyson, JBS, Cargill and National Beef.
Belk said about 30 major packing plants in the country are handling roughly 85% to 90% of the beef supply and if one of those plants goes down, it reverberates across the industry, from supply to pricing.
“The first and foremost thing that they've learned is that the supply chain was more fragile than people thought,” he said.
Looking ahead as the pandemic continues
Even after implementing measures, including plastic barriers, mask requirements and temperature checking, the coronavirus continues to spread through plants.
Some companies have said they are testing more and continually evaluating their practices, which could help if more large outbreaks occur.
JBS USA, for example, said it commissioned three consulting firms to review its COVID-19 prevention and mitigation strategies. Bruett said these external consultants provided “minimal suggestions for changes or enhancements” to its protocols, but all of the suggestions were incorporated.
As vaccine developments have seen recent successful trials, food processing groups, including the North American Meat Institute, are urging the government to secure priority for its workers once a vaccine is developed.
“It looks like we're going to have vaccines and other treatments here sooner rather than later now. But how those are disseminated across the population will have an impact on how quickly they're able to address this fully in the food production system,” Belk said. “These plants are going to be under duress to make sure that these new technologies are implemented rapidly so they're working hard on it.”
The pandemic has also pushed meat companies to think more about their operations. Many are investing additional funds into developing robotics for their plants and experts say more changes could come post-pandemic.
Looking ahead to the long term, Debra Bachar, president of Blueberry Business Group, which consults for CEOs in the food industry, said the pandemic will likely push more companies to think about their operations and their Social, Environmental and Governance (ESG) goals, a high set of standards for a company's operations.
“There are critical new demands put upon food industry companies to report their progress on addressing ESG issues that many believe have been exacerbated by the virus,” Bachar said. “Heading into 2021 after an intense period of taking care of business in the short term, the future of every food company needs more attention.”