Healthcare

Judge dismisses lawsuit against Smithfield over pork plant safety issues

A federal judge on Tuesday dismissed a worker advocacy group’s lawsuit alleging that Smithfield Foods Inc. failed to sufficiently protect employees at a pork processing plant in Missouri amid the coronavirus outbreak. 

U.S. District Judge Greg Kays ruled that Smithfield was already taking many of the health precautions that the Rural Community Workers Alliance had called for in its lawsuit, Reuters reported. The precautions include screening production-line workers for symptoms of the virus and installing barriers in facilities to help keep employees apart. 

Kay also said it wasn’t within the court’s purview to oversee working conditions. He noted that under President Trump’s executive order to keep meatpacking plants open, the federal government was responsible for ensuring safe health conditions. 

Meatpacking plants have emerged as major hot spots for coronavirus outbreaks throughout the U.S., prompting concerns about the safety of the facilities and the possibility of food shortages. Smithfield closed a plant in South Dakota for two weeks in April after hundreds of workers tested positive for the virus. 

The Iowa health department on Tuesday announced that more than 1,600 workers at four meatpacking plants across the state had contracted the virus. This included 730 workers at one Tyson Foods plant in Perry, Iowa, representing 58 percent of the workforce. 

In a lawsuit filed April 24, the Rural Community Workers Alliance accused Smithfield of creating a “public nuisance” by not protecting employees at one of its plants in Milan, Mo.

David Muraskin, a lawyer for the group, told Reuters that the group’s lawsuit led Smithfield to make the changes employees had sought. 

“We wish that Smithfield would do more, but the decision shows that workers can organize and move companies to make changes, and that’s a really important development,” Muraskin said.

Smithfield had argued that the lawsuit should be dismissed since the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was already investigating the plant’s health condition.

“From the start, we stated that this lawsuit was frivolous, full of specious allegations that were without factual or legal merit and that the assertions were based on speculation, hearsay, anonymous declarations and outdated information,” Smithfield said Wednesday in a statement. “This was nothing more than an attempt by a number of interconnected groups to promote their agenda through outrageous accusations.”

Trump last week signed an order designating processors of beef, pork and poultry as critical infrastructure and compelling them to remain open amid the pandemic. Trump has voiced concerns about the prospect of shortages, writing in the order that “any unnecessary closures can quickly have a large effect on the food supply chain.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in late April that about 4,900 meatpacking plant workers have contracted the coronavirus and 20 have died from it. The agency said that “improving physical distancing, hand hygiene, cleaning and disinfection, and medical leave policies, and providing educational materials in languages spoken by workers might help reduce” the spread of the virus in these facilities. 

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