Too Many Lives At Risk To Keep Our Meat Supply Safe

Nevin Barich

Nevin Barich

May 7, 2020 (press release) –

How many lives is our U.S. meat supply worth?

That’s the sobering question all of us need to be asking ourselves, particularly in light of President Donald Trump’s decision last week to sign an executive order giving the USDA the power to invoke the Defense Production Act to keep meat processing plants open to avoid a meat shortage in the country.

How many lives? It’s not a question rooted in hyperbole or political bias. It’s based on the fact that these plants are hotspots for the spread of coronavirus. Consider the following recent headlines from Industry Intelligence:

Number of COVID-19 cases tied to outbreaks at US meatpacking plants surpasses 10,000, according to tracking by USA Today and Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting tracking; at least 170 plants in 29 states have had at least one worker test positive

Nearly 900 workers at Tyson Foods' plant in Logansport, Indiana, have tested positive for COVID-19, media outlets suggest; the plant was closed on April 23 to carry out COVID-19 testing among its workforce

Sixth JBS USA employee at company's Greeley, Colorado, beef plant dies from coronavirus, says president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 7; testing has confirmed 245 COVID-19 cases among employees at the plant, state data says

Thirteen food processing plants in North Carolina report COVID-19 outbreaks, state health officials say; 479 cases confirmed between outbreaks at 13 of the state's 24 facilities

The reason these plants are hotspots for COVID-19 is simple: the work involved requires workers to operate closely together, making social distancing difficult if not impossible. Employees at these plant, for example, work shoulder-to-shoulder in refrigerated assembly lines. Additionally, workers need to remain near supervisors to let them know if they need to step away from their line, so that another worker can step in immediately to prevent production from stopping.

Many workers say the meat processing companies are doing little to protect them from coronavirus, neither enforcing social distancing nor offering additional protective equipment. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued guidelines calling for physical distancing and other measures to keep workers safe, these guidelines are currently voluntary. 

Many employees also say they don’t have paid sick leave, health benefits or substantial savings, offering them little assurance should they get infected and incentivizing them to work while sick.

“Workers are scared to go to work, but they face an inexcusable choice of going to work and exposing themselves to this pandemic or not going to work and losing their income,” said Hunter Ogletree, a co-executive director of the Western North Carolina Workers Center, which is advocating for workers in local poultry plants.

These workers are literally putting their lives on the line. But just how many lives is our meat supply worth?

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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