Meatpacking Plants Become The Major Hotspots For Coronavirus

Nevin Barich

Nevin Barich

April 20, 2020






Meatpacking plants have become the home for the largest hotspots of coronavirus outbreaks in the U.S., and it could soon have a major impact on our nation’s food supply.

The largest hotspot by far has been in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, home of a Smithfield Foods pork processing plant. As of April 19, a total of 725 employees at the plant have been stricken by COVID-19, The Argus Leader reported. In addition, 143 non-employees who had close contact with these Smithfield workers have tested positive for COVID-19, also as of April 19, according to South Dakota state Department of Health.

The plant, which has been closed indefinitely, is responsible for up to 5% of U.S. pork production, the company said, which pushes the country “perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply,” said Smithfield Foods President and CEO Kenneth Sullivan.

"We have continued to run our facilities for one reason: to sustain our nation’s food supply during this pandemic," Sullivan said. "We believe it is our obligation to help feed the country, now more than ever. We have a stark choice as a nation: We are either going to produce food or not, even in the face of COVID-19."

Working Shoulder To Shoulder

One only needs to point to the nature of meatpacking work to see why these plants are such a hotspot for COVID-19.

In a time where “social distancing” has become part of Americans’ new normal, workers at these plants are working shoulder to shoulder in crowded, enclosed spaces. Other tough working conditions include a lack of basic benefits, low wages, a push for faster line speeds that increase the dangers of the job, and no access to protective equipment, said Suzanne Adely, co-director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance, a coalition that brings together 34 worker-based organizations in the food sector around the country. Adely noted these conditions have been employed in these plants for decades and are now placing workers at increased risk of contracting COVID-19.

“Exploitation of the food labor force is not something that has just [recently] come up,” Adely said. “In the midst of this crisis, people are finally realizing that food workers really exist. We want to make sure they understand the exploitation they’re seeing at this moment is possible because it’s a pre-existing condition.”

And while meat companies—under intense pressure from labor unions, health departments, and government officials—have finally begun implementing protective measures at some plants, workers and organizers say the measures are too little, too late. Many workers still cannot practice social distancing on the job, have not been provided masks and have no financial recourse if they fall ill.

The Next Major U.S. Hotspot: Iowa

Iowa state officials reported a spike of 389 new COVID-19 cases on April 19, more than double the record daily tally of 191 reported last week.

The governor’s office said that 67% of the new cases—or 261—could be attributed to new surveillance testing of meat processing facilities. That includes more than 500 completed tests of Tyson Food employees and more than 500 completed tests of National Beef employees, for a total of 84 and 177 positive tests, respectively.

The state said last week it was sending thousands of test kits to the Tyson plants in Louisa County — where two employees have died from the disease — and Black Hawk County, and to the National Beef plant in Tama County. However, while the Tyson meatpacking plant in Louisa County and the National Beef plant in Tama County have temporarily closed, the Tyson plant in Black Hawk County has remained open despite widespread calls that it also be idled.

Cargill’s Canadian Hotspot

Health officials in High River, Alberta, said that as of April 17, 358 cases in High River and elsewhere in the region were linked to a Cargill slaughterhouse in the city. Many of the workers at the Cargill plant are new immigrants or temporary foreign workers, whose jobs and shared living spaces make them especially vulnerable to infection. At least one worker is on a ventilator, according to the union for the plant, and others are struggling with serious illnesses.

A Cargill worker, who has been recovering at home since he and his spouse tested positive for COVID-19, said he is afraid to return without assurances from the company that the plant is safe.

So What’s The Solution?

The outbreaks going on in South Dakota, Iowa and Alberta, among other areas, outlines a major dilemma for the meatpacking industry. On the one hand, consumer retail demand is higher than ever as Americans continue to stock up on food supplies while they stay home. On the other hand, the COVID-19 outbreaks at these plants highlight working conditions that are simply too dangerous right now given that the virus is easily transmissible. Continue to run the plants and the spread continues. Close the plants and the nation’s meat supply is threatened.

The answer, though difficult, seems clear. Close the plants. Our meat supply isn’t worth the countless number of everyday Americans whose lives are seemingly threatened by working in these conditions.

This may be a perfect time to start looking at meat alternatives.

Nevin Barich is the Food and Beverage Analyst at Industry Intelligence, which can help YOU better address your own industry challenges. To arm yourself with the latest market intelligence, contact or call 310-553-0008 if you’re interested in receiving or sharing the IMPACT report with your colleagues or partners

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