Workers at major U.S. meat-packing plants have experienced cases and deaths from COVID-19 that were up to three times higher than previous estimates, according to a report from the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis seen by Reuters.
The U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee surveyed major meat packers Tyson Foods, JBS USA, Cargill, National Beef and Smithfield Foods, who together control over 80% of the beef market and 60% of the market. pork in the United States.
At the factories of these companies, workers’ COVID-19 cases totaled 59,147 and deaths totaled 269, based on tally through January of this year, according to the report that was released Wednesday before the hearing of the sub-committee on the impact of the pandemic on meat packaging workers.
This is far more than a previous estimate from the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN), which had been used by government agencies and the media throughout the pandemic, according to the report. FERN had counted 22,694 cases and 88 deaths among workers at the five companies as of September 8, mostly based on data from news reports and public health agencies.
“So far, we have not fully understood how badly the meat packaging workers have been affected,” said U.S. Representative James Clyburn, chairman of the subcommittee, in his opening statement at the ‘hearing.
The meat packaging industry has been particularly affected by COVID-19 in part because its workers tend to be nearby for long hours in often disorderly conditions.
The new data comes from the company’s calculations of worker cases primarily based on tests performed at company facilities, meaning some infections identified by other health providers could have been ruled out.
Cases were particularly high at some factories, including JBS’s beef factory in Hyrum, Utah, and Tyson’s beef factory in Amarillo, Texas, where about 50% of workers contracted the virus, according to the report.
The subcommittee’s findings also included new details about lax safety protocols at some factories.
In May 2020, at the Tyson Amarillo factory, for example, workers wore masks “saturated” with fluids, were not socially distanced, and were separated by “plastic bags on frames” instead of barriers. CDC compliant, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Memo (CDC) obtained by the subcommittee.
Tyson and JBS said in statements Wednesday that they spent hundreds of millions of dollars on health and safety efforts related to COVID-19.
Cargill said in a statement he was “saddened by the tragic impacts of this virus on our colleagues and the communities in which we operate.”
Smithfield said in a statement he had safety measures in place to protect employees and frequently tested his workers, finding asymptomatic cases.
National Beef officials were not immediately available for comment.
The subcommittee report also suggested that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) had not done enough to protect workers in the meat industry from the virus.
OSHA staff told the subcommittee that under former President Donald Trump, the agency’s leadership made the political decision not to issue a Temporary Emergency Standard (ETS) that would have required packers meat to take certain safety precautions, according to the report.
“Without being held to a specific standard, meat packers found themselves with largely unchecked discretion in determining how to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, to the detriment of meat pack workers,” the report said.
Debbie Berkowitz, a member of Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Work and the Working Poor, told the hearing that OSHA had “abandoned its responsibility to protect workers under the last administration.”
Advocates testified that OSHA should issue an ETS similar to that issued for healthcare workers, and ensure it responds to worker complaints.
Martin Rosas, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 2, said these measures are necessary “to protect those who bring food to our tables.”
(Reporting by Leah Douglas in Washington Additional reporting by Tom Polansek in Chicago Editing by Howard Goller and Matthew Lewis)
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