U.S. House Report Says Meatpacking Industry Prioritized Profits as 59,000 Workers Got COVID

A report from the U.S. House of Representatives released Wednesday says that at least 59,000 workers in the meatpacking industry caught COVID-19 last year, with 269 of those workers dying.

The report was produced by the U.S. House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, which analyzed internal documents from five of the biggest meatpacking companies. In its finding, the committee said the companies could have done more to protect their employees from exposure to COVID-19 but instead were more concerned about profits than worker safety.

The number of infections reported by the House is three times higher than a previous projection from the United Food and Commercial Workers, which said it found 22,400 positive cases in addition to 132 deaths in the meatpacking industry in 2020. Meanwhile, another estimate from the Food and Environment Reporting Network put the number of infections at 22,700 infections with 88 deaths.

The actual number for the meatpacking industry could be even higher than the House's figure, since data from companies don't often take into account positive results from outside testing or self-reporting from employees.

"Instead of addressing the clear indications that workers were contracting the coronavirus at alarming rates due to conditions in meatpacking facilities, meatpacking companies prioritized profits and production over worker safety, continuing to employ practices that led to crowded facilities in which the virus spread easily," the report said.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Tyson food
A new House report claims more meatpacking industry workers were infected by COVID-19 than previously thought, and companies prioritized profits over protecting workers. In this photo, a Tyson Fresh Meats production plant is seen in Emporia Kansas, January 8, 2020. Getty

At the height of the outbreaks in spring last year, U.S. meatpacking production fell to about 60 percent of normal levels as several major plants were forced to temporarily close for deep cleaning and safety upgrades or operated at slower speeds because of worker shortages. The report said companies were slow to take protective steps such as checking employee temperatures, distributing protective equipment and installing barriers between work stations.

The North American Meat Institute trade group defended the industry's response to the pandemic.

"Frontline meat and poultry workers were among the first impacted by the pandemic, but publicly available data confirm that comprehensive measures implemented in the sector since spring 2020, including extensive infection prevention and vaccination efforts, have successfully protected the sector's dedicated and diverse workforce as they have continued feeding Americans and keeping our economy working," said Julie Anna Potts, president and CEO of the trade group.

The report is based on documents from JBS, Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods, Cargill and National Beef. Together they control over 80 percent of the beef market and over 60 percent of the pork market nationwide.

Cargill, Tyson, Smithfield and JBS released statements Wednesday saying they worked aggressively to meet federal health and safety standards and took additional measures to protect their employees, such as conducting widespread testing and urging employees to get vaccinated.

"Throughout the pandemic, we've worked hard to maintain safe and consistent operations. At the same time, we have not hesitated to temporarily idle or reduce capacity at processing plants when we determined it necessary to do so," Cargill spokesman Daniel Sullivan said.

The companies expressed regret at the toll the virus has taken.

"Even one illness or loss of life to COVID-19 is one too many, which is why we've taken progressive action from the start of the pandemic to protect the health and safety of our workers," Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson said.

The report said infection rates were especially high at some meatpacking plants. At a JBS plant in Hyrum, Utah, 54 percent of the workforce contracted the virus between March 2020 and February 2021. Nearly 50 percent of workers at a Tyson plant in Amarillo, Texas, were infected in the same time frame. And 44 percent of employees at National Beef's plant in Tama, Iowa, caught COVID-19 from April 2020 to February 2021.

The report said internal documents show Smithfield aggressively pushed back against government safety recommendations after experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention inspected its pork plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota—the site of a major outbreak. A few days earlier, Smithfield's CEO emphasized the severity of the problem when he told the CEO of National Beef in an email that "employees are afraid to come to work."

Debbie Berkowitz, with Georgetown University's Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, said the industry was slow to respond and federal regulators didn't force them to act.

"When the pandemic hit, of course it was going to hit meatpacking plants really hard and really fast," said Berkowitz, who was scheduled to testify at a House hearing on the report Wednesday. "What was the industry's response—not to protect workers and mitigate the spread of COVID-19, not to separate workers six feet apart, which was the earlier guidance that came out in late February—but to just keep on going."

The international president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW), the largest union for meatpacking workers in the county, provided a statement to Newsweek on the House report.

Perrone said the report "exposes the truth that the deadly impact of the pandemic on America's meatpacking workers was far worse than previously reported" and that his union "called out the Trump Administration for its failure to hold the industry accountable and we successfully pushed many companies to make the urgent reforms needed to strengthen worker protections."

"With federal regulators asleep at the switch when the pandemic began and many non-union plants refusing to disclose the full number of COVID worker infections, far too many Americans on the front lines were defenseless against the virus. This report from Chairman [James] Clyburn is shining a light on these safety failures that cannot be ignored," Perrone's statement continued.

He added, "Today we are calling on Congress and the USDA for immediate action to strengthen protections for meatpacking workers to keep them safe on the job and ensure this never happens again."

Update 10/28/21 11:20 a.m. ET: This story has been updated to include a statement from UFCW.

The House report said internal documents show Smithfield pushed back against government safety recommendations after experts from the CDC inspected its pork plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota—the site of a major outbreak. Above, employees and family members protest outside a Smithfield Foods processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, on April 9, 2020. AP Photo/Stephen Groves File