At least 59,000 meatpackers from five of the major meatpacking companies caught COVID-19 in the first year of the pandemic, higher than previously suggested estimates, a House select subcommittee reported Wednesday in a staff memorandum.
The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis — which obtained data from Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods, JBS USA Food Company, National Beef Packing Company and Cargill Meat Solutions Corporation — reported that more than 59,000 of their employees had gotten COVID-19 during 2020.
The select subcommittee noted that this figure, representing 80 percent of the beef market and 60 percent of the pork market in the U.S., was significantly higher than a Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN) estimate of 22,700 infections.
The report also noted that at least 269 employees from the five meatpacking companies died of COVID-19 between March 1, 2020, and Feb. 1, 2021, “over three times higher than what was previously estimated by FERN for these five companies’ respective workforces.”
“Knowing the true scale of these outbreaks is important not just to understanding what happened to those working in the plants. Outbreaks in meatpacking plants were also drivers of the spread of the virus in their wider communities, leading to additional infections and deaths among those who never set foot in a facility,” chairman of the House select subcommittee, Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), said in opening remarks at Wednesday's hearing.
“Any argument that these deadly risks to meatpacking workers were necessary to keep food on the tables of American families is dangerous and wrong. We can and we must both keep families fed and keep workers safe,” he added.
The select subcommittee's report said companies could have taken more preventative steps to shield workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. The report alleged that “meatpacking companies prioritized profits and production over worker safety, continuing to employ practices that led to crowded facilities in which the virus spread easily.”
Nikki Richardson, a spokesperson for JBS, said in a statement that the company took measures to mitigate the spread of the virus, including “requiring facemasks for 100% of our workforce in the early stages of the pandemic, voluntarily removing vulnerable populations while providing full pay, covering 100% of worker healthcare costs related to COVID-19, and conducting more than 80,000 surveillance tests to date.”
A Cargill spokesperson said in a statement to The Hill that the company worked hard to maintain safety throughout the pandemic, operating "in a manner that meets or exceeds the federal government’s health and safety standards issued for meat processors."
"At the same time, we have not hesitated to temporarily idle or reduce capacity at processing plants when we determined it necessary to do so. Our response to the pandemic has been guided by our values – putting people first, doing the right thing and reaching higher," the spokesperson said.
Jim Monroe, vice president of corporate affairs at Smithfield Foods, said in a statement that the pandemic was an "unprecedented and tragic event" but claimed that the meatpacking company had implemented worker safety measures "even before any direction from health officials."
The Hill has reached out to the other two meatpacking companies for comment.