This spring, as coronavirus cases in major metropolitan areas in the U.S. began to plateau, a spike in other areas of the country raised concern—both for loss of life and potential disruption of the food supply chain.
In 56 counties in the U.S., meatpacking accounts for more than 20% of all county employment. Starting in mid-April 2020, confirmed COVID-19 cases per 100,000 in these rural meatpacking-dependent counties grew rapidly, according to USDA’s Economic Research Service, with infection rates as much as 10 times higher than those in other rural counties.
Meat processing plants proved to be far more susceptible to COVID-19 transmission than other sectors. As of September 2020, there have been 42,606 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among the 500,000 people who work in the meatpacking industry in the U.S., with 203 reported fatalities. That’s in stark contrast to the 7,253 COVID-19 cases and 16 deaths in the farm sector and the 9,571 cases and 35 deaths in food processing plants, as cited in Food & Environment Reporting Network (FERN)’s dashboard tracking of COVID-19 outbreaks in the food system.
As more workers got sick or felt too unsafe to return to work, plants across the country shut down. Due to the production output of each of these plants, a single shutdown could affect as much as 5% of the supply chain.
The impact was sudden and unprecedented. By the end of April, weekly cattle slaughter was down 35% and hog slaughter by about 45%, according to Jim MacDonald, who was the acting chief of the Structure, Technology, and Productivity at USDA’s Economic Research Service before becoming a professor in the department of agricultural and resource economics at the University of Maryland in College Park.
The sharp decline in meat processing also forced hog farmers to euthanize their pigs, which have to be slaughtered at a specific weight, to avoid dangerous overcrowding. Cattle farms experienced an overabundance of livestock, causing prices to drop 18% in April and May.
Even as farmers faced a livestock surplus, fast food chains began running out of beef patties and grocery stores had to tap into surpluses of frozen meat. John Tyson, chairman of the board with Tyson Foods, took out a full-page advertisement in numerous newspapers, stating that the crisis needed public and private sectors to work together to strengthen the supply chain and make sure employees can come to work “without fear, panic, or worry.”
On April 28, President Trump signed an executive order classifying meat processing plants as “critical infrastructure” that could and should stay open during the pandemic. The companies that own the majority of meat processing plants—Tyson, Cargill, Smithfield, and JBS—began implementing personal protective equipment (PPE) requirements, social distancing protocols, testing, and contact tracing. By June, there was a sharp reduction in the number of cases per 100,000 for these meatpacking-dependent counties, reports USDA. These counties now have only 1.25 times the two-week moving average number of cases per 100,000 compared to other rural counties.
Most researchers agree that the industry was able to quickly tamp down the flames of these hotspots to restore the stability of the meat supply chain. Yet, labor activists point to ways the industry still has to evolve to make sure workers are kept as safe as the supply chain.
Plants in other sectors, such as the automobile industry, often rely more on machines than on human labor; however, due to the carcass-specific cutting required in the packing industry, meat fabrication is still largely done by hand in the U.S. Workers typically stand very close together in these plants, which are typically very cold and very loud—all conditions that make transmission of aerosol diseases more likely. “It’s not a good place to work if you’re prone to respiratory diseases,” says MacDonald. At press time, COVID-19 infections have impacted the operations of 496 U.S. meatpacking facilities, as reported by FERN.