Story at a glance
- Tyson Foods, a large meat supplier, will implement new public health measures for all employees.
- Multiple facilities were forced to cease operations due to coronavirus outbreaks among workers, as the pandemic rattled the meat industry.
Following multiple coronavirus outbreaks across several meatpacking plants, Tyson Foods, one of the largest meat processing companies in the U.S., will install new infrastructure to administer thousands of coronavirus tests weekly to its employees to prevent future outbreaks and keep facilities running.
The Associated Press (AP) reports that Tyson Foods will randomly test workers who appear both symptomatic and asymptomatic to catch the virus at multiple points of incubation. Employees who may have been exposed to the virus will also be tested following the detection of a confirmed case.
To complete such an ambitious volume of testing, the company will hire about 200 nurses to a 400-person medical team, as well as a chief medical officer to oversee the health protocols.
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The company told reporters on Thursday these and other daily health screenings will be implemented in all of Tyson’s 140 U.S. factories. The plan was developed in conjunction with consultation from health care provider Matrix Medical.
Other companies, like Smithfield Foods, responsible for the bulk of U.S. pork production, have adopted new practices to protect workers' health, including personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks and face shields for employees, physical barriers to separate workers on the production floor and temperature and health screenings in addition to free testing.
These developments are in line with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s guidelines for meat processing workers safety during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic has acutely affected meat processing workers, who operate in close proximity to one another with no health screenings prior to entering facilities. In late June, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, the largest U.S. meatpacking union, reported that 93 meatpacking employees had died as a result of a coronavirus infection, and more than 16,000 have been infected or exposed.
Mass outbreaks in facilities owned by Tyson Foods, as well as other companies like Smithfield Foods and JBS USA, forced closures throughout the industry that resulted in higher meat prices reflecting newly scarce resources. Some grocery stores even implemented quotas on how much meat an individual customer could purchase to ensure relatively equal distribution of dwindling meat products.
In an attempt to curb this supply line shutdown, President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act in April to designate meat processing facilities as critical infrastructure and order their reopening. Companies like Tyson reconciled this mandate with the public health crisis by reducing production and implementing stringent sanitizing and health monitoring efforts.
Most processing employees are Black or Latino and have been placed at a higher risk of exposure to a COVID-19 infection due to their status as frontline workers. This prompted worker groups to file complaints to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) alleging civil rights violations on part of companies like Tyson Foods and JBS.
“Meat-processing workers are uniquely vulnerable to the coronavirus and the risk of contracting it because of the oppressive and dangerous working conditions in these facilities,” attorney Brent Newell of Public Justice said, the lead representation for these workers. "This is about how those black, Latino and Asian workers are more significantly affected than their white co-workers."
Prior to this filing, a CDC report revealed that nearly 90 percent of meatpacking employees were minority workers.
“Targeted, workplace-specific prevention strategies are critical to reducing COVID-19 associated health disparities among vulnerable populations,” the authors noted in the report.
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