On October 27th the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis issued a report on infections and deaths among workers employed by the top-five packers of red meat . These included JBS USA Food Company, Tyson Foods Inc., Smithfield Foods Inc., Cargill Meat Solutions Corporation, and National Beef Packing Company LLC. A finding by the Committee was that among the approximately 500,000 meatpacking workers in the U.S., 59,000 were diagnosed with COVID and 269 fatalities attributed to the infection were documented between March 2020 and February 2021. These figures as supplied by the individual companies were approximately three times the levels previously estimated, based on surveys conducted by the Food and Environmental Reporting Network (FERN), an activist non-profit organization.
The values for morbidity and mortality during March 2020 through February 2021 should however be expressed as rates to compare COVID incidence over the period in red meat plants in comparison to the general U.S. population. Assuming 500,000 employees, the 59,000 diagnosed cases represent a morbidity rate of 11,800 per 100,000. The mortality rate was 53.8 per 100,000. Assuming 40 million cases of COVID in the U.S. population of 330 million over the corresponding period, the morbidity rate was 12,121 per 100,000 closely approximating the morbidity rate in red meat plants. In establishing the mortality rate for the U.S. population, it is assumed that 600,000 died of COVID over the period corresponding to a mortality rate of 182 per 100,000 that exceeded the rate in red meat plants. The U.S. morbidity figure is however biased by inclusion of the elderly and those with predisposing conditions that would not be representative of workers in plants. Notwithstanding the differences in demographics between the U.S. population and packing plant workers, morbidity and mortality rates were not as high as the report purports to show based on publication of raw data not expressed as a rate.
It is however evident that specific plants in the U.S. recorded exceptionally high morbidity rates both in the U.S. and in Europe. CHICK-NEWS has previously documented the extensive outbreak among workers at the Tonnies hog plant in Gutersloh, Germany.
An obvious realization from the Congressional Report is that during the spring of 2020, accurate figures of morbidity rates were not collected and there was apparently no central database under the control of a Federal agency that was collating data on a real-time basis. Understanding the magnitude of a problem through evaluating accurate data is necessary to formulate programs for control and prevention of any community-wide infection.
It is clear that OSHA under the direction of the Department of Labor failed in their responsibility to protect workers. OSHA did not issue an Emergency Technical Standard (ETS) to protect workers. A clearly stated ETS based on current knowledge of the modes of transmission of COVID would have guided management to implement protective measures. Independently a number of companies introduced policies and programs to limit spread of SARS-CoV-2 virus among line workers based on emerging reports on the epidemiology of COVID based on emerging studies in the E.U. and the U.S.
The Centers for Disease Control was slow to react to the pandemic. The Agency developed a draft memorandum based on visits to plants with high rates of infection. The draft was criticized by senior executives affiliated with a number of the packers since adapting to the virus in the absence of a vaccine would have reduced output and hence profit. Political pressure resulted in a diluted CDC recommendation on April 22nd merely containing suggestions and effectively allowing operators of plants to ignore recommendations that were considered to be inconvenient with respect to plant throughput.
In appraising the Report it is evident that at an early stage of the COVID pandemic, plant management was generally unaware of the severity of COVID and were probably of a self-denial mindset that characterized the disease as a “little flu” as exemplified by President Bolsonaro of Brazil with disastrous consequences for his Nation. Prevailing attitudes towards workers and COVID were evident in memos available to the Committee and included in the report. The self-serving tendency to downplay COVID was supported by prevailing opinions expressed by the Administration minimizing the potential impact of the pandemic even to characterizing the disease as a “hoax”. Accordingly various levels of management were reluctant to apply preventive measures or to alter plant routines in order to maintain production. In the event increased transmission rates led to absenteeism that resulted in profound reduction in rates of slaughter and packing. This impacted the entire supply chain from the Nation’s hog and beef producers through to supermarkets.
The reaction of management in the broiler and turkey industries was far more proactive and the working conditions in processing plants, with a higher degree of mechanization allowed for social distancing between workstations. At an early stage in the pandemic employees were provided with personal protective equipment that was available.
The report of the Select Subcommittee obviously places blame on some companies and plants, but it must be remembered that very little was known of the severity of COVID, the route of transmission and appropriate protective measures. Neither the OSHA nor the CDC were of practical help in the early stages of the pandemic. The White House was more concerned with maintaining a supply of red meat and responded to lobbying by packers by issuing a Presidential Executive Order on April 29th providing the major red meat packing companies adequate cover to continue operations.
Hindsight is remarkably precise. In 2006, the federal government was concerned over the possibility of an outbreak of a viral respiratory infection following the 2003 SARS outbreak. At the time a potential pandemic was presumed to be an emergent strain of influenza. In January 2007, the President’s National Infrastructure Advisory Council warned of the possible impact of a hypothetical widespread respiratory infection. This resulted in a recommendation to initiate contingency planning for a national outbreak. The Food and Agricultural Sector Coordination Council urged meat packers to consider social distancing measures and to provide protective clothing and masks based on the current knowledge of transmission of influenza virus. Recommendations based on then current knowledge presumed that a virus would be transmitted in plants by the aerosol route. This was a prescient observation that became reality in 2020. The Select Subcommittee Report notes “despite this forewarning meatpacking conglomerates were caught flat-footed by the Coronavirus pandemic, leading to breathtakingly high numbers of Coronavirus infections and deaths among meatpacking workers”.
CHICK-NEWS previously reported on the difference in approach of the Federal OSHA and the California counterpart with respect to deviations from acceptable standards to prevent infection among workers. Absent an ETS, relevant to red meat plants, OSHA was hamstrung in that it could only enforce a General Duty Clause which carries a maximum fine of $13,000 for serious violations. The California OSHA was not restrained in their evaluation of violations of state codes and imposed heavy fines on packers demonstrating obvious neglect of their concern for worker safety as determined during inspections of plants and other agricultural operations. During 2020, OSHA issued only nine citations among three meatpacking companies that experienced ultra-high incidence rates of COVID, despite receiving numerous complaints from workers and unions.
The Congressional Report fails to document the proactive measures taken by numerous companies with Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms representing the best of the red meat and poultry industries. Tyson Foods introduced health inspections for workers reporting for work, provided personal protective equipment as it became available and contracting with a third party industrial hygiene company to implement preventive programs. Perdue Farms introduced social distancing, modified plant shifts to prevent congregation in change areas and invited CDC and OSHA scientists and inspectors to plant visits to develop appropriate preventive measures. Faced with absenteeism and concern among workers most companies were forced to provide benefits for employees that were quarantined and raised wage rates to overcome hesitancy to retun to work. The proactive companies initiated vaccination programs as soon as emergency use authorization was approved for COVID vaccines and encouraged immunization by arranging clinics and offering compliance bonuses.
The report of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, although documenting aspects of the infection in plants, fails to recognize positive action by the chicken industry and some red meat packers and emphasised only the negative aspects of the response to the pandemic. This is to the detriment of the industry and is emblematic of the politicization of COVID.