UPDATE: Sept. 16, 2021: The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, led by Rep. Jim Clyburn, sent letters to the CEOs of two meat giants, Cargill and National Beef, asking them to provide information about how many of their employees were sick or died from the virus, as well as the rate of vaccination among their workforce. The letter called out National Beef directly, saying that it “had a coronavirus case rate three to five times higher than plants run by other large companies.”
- The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis sent a letter to JBS USA, Tyson Foods and Smithfield Foods requesting documents and other information on the coronavirus infections and deaths at their facilities. In the 11-page letter, the panel also asked for information including employee complaints or concerns regarding the coronavirus and plant inspections by federal or state officials.
- The subcommittee also sent a letter to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration seeking a list of the coronavirus-related complaints it has received in connection with meatpacking and meat processing facilities, on-site inspections the agency has performed, as well as documents relating to inspections, enforcement actions, citations or fines.
- Meat and poultry plants, in particular, have been hard hit during the pandemic with outbreaks that have sickened hundreds of workers and temporarily closed plants for cleaning — leading to brief meat shortages in some areas. The companies have defended their records and noted they have spent millions of dollars to protect their workers and pay them bonuses.
As the coronavirus pandemic rages on, so does the blow back large meat and poultry processing companies continue to face over how they respond to the outbreak at their facilities across the U.S.
Unions, activists, workers and family members criticized the meat industry for waiting too long to put additional safety measures in place. Since last April, 277 meatpacking workers have died because of COVID-19. OSHA also was blasted for lax guidance and the level of fines it placed against some companies, which critics argued were too small to deter future violations. As of mid-November, Smithfield and JBS USA were the only two major meat companies have received federal OSHA fines.
A National Academy of Sciences report issued in December estimated livestock-processing plants played a major part in spreading COVID-19, suggesting they accelerated the demand throughout the neighboring community beyond what would have otherwise occurred. The report estimated these facilities were associated with as many as 310,000 coronavirus cases, or 8% of those in the U.S., and 5,200, or 4%, of all U.S. deaths as of July 21.
Now congressional lawmakers are taking a closer look into worker safety at these plants and whether OSHA and the companies themselves were doing enough to protect employees. While it's uncertain what the House panel will uncover, it could potentially detect additional information on whether the meat processors responded quickly enough to the outbreak and if they put their workers at risk.
"Public reports indicate that meatpacking companies … have refused to take basic precautions to protect their workers, many of whom earn extremely low wages and lack adequate paid leave, and have shown a callous disregard for workers’ health," Rep. James Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat, who chairs the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, said in a statement. "These actions appear to have resulted in thousands of meatpacking workers getting infected with the virus and hundreds dying."
In statements provided to Food Dive, JBS USA, Tyson and Smithfield all touted the money they have spent to protect employees and the community.
JBS said it welcomed the opportunity to provide the subcommittee "information regarding our response to the global pandemic and our efforts to protect our workforce." Tyson said its "top priority will always be the health and safety of our people, and we look forward to working with the congressional committee to share what we’ve done."
Keira Lombardo, chief administrative officer with Smithfield, said the company has taken "seriously" its responsibility to protect the health and safety of its employees and has "taken extraordinary measures to protect its our team members from the virus — meeting or exceeding federal, state and local health and safety guidance."
Lombardo went on to add: "It is unfortunate that there are inaccuracies and misinformation in the media on this issue and we look forward to providing the Subcommittee with correct information."