The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis on February 1 launched an investigation into widespread COVID-19 infections and deaths in US meatpacking plants. Representative James Clyburn, Chairman of the Subcommittee, sent letters to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods and JBS USA.
The letter to OSHA claims that under the Trump administration OSHA “failed to adequately carry out its responsibility for enforcing worker safety laws at meatpacking plants across the country, resulting in preventable infections and deaths.” Since April, “54,000 workers at 569 meatpacking plants in the United States have tested positive for the coronavirus, and at least 270 have died.” The letter cites to data captured by the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN) who has been mapping outbreaks of the coronavirus in the food system since April. The Subcommittee is now calling on OSHA to take all necessary steps under statutory authority or authority granted by President Joe Biden’s Executive Order on Protecting Worker Health and Safety to protect workers from COVID-19, “by issuing clear guidance to employers, enacting an emergency temporary standard, and enhancing enforcement efforts.”
According to the letter sent to JBS USA, the world’s largest meatpacker, 3,084 employees of its employees have contracted the virus while at least 18 have died. Former employees of a Greeley, Colorado, plant allege that JBS “provided screening equipment that did not function properly, forced employees to pay for coronavirus tests and encouraged noticeably sick employees to continue working.”
The letter to Tyson Foods claims that, “more workers at Tyson have been infected with and killed by the coronavirus than at any other meatpacking company, with 12,413 coronavirus cases and 39 deaths.” Tyson failed to institute facility-wide testing where more than 50 employees were infected. Tyson had no testing plan for employees until it established its own in July 2020. The letter also references a lawsuit filed against Tyson Foods in Iowa where plaintiffs allege that managers “organized a cash buy-in, winner-take-all betting pool for supervisors and managers to wager how many employees would test positive for COVID-19.”
The letter sent to Smithfield Foods states that “3,554 Smithfield employees working in meatpacking plants have been infected with the coronavirus, and eight have died.” Despite an outbreak at a Vernon, California, plant where at least 300 workers were infected, “management failed to implement safety measures until workers got sick and even then continued to require workers to work shoulder to shoulder in some parts of the plant.”
Meatpacking plants are also responsible for spreading the coronavirus into nearby communities. According to a study by the National Academy of Sciences, meatpacking plants were associated with between 236,000 to 310,000 COVID-19 cases and 4,300 to 5,200 deaths as of July 21, 2020.