A U.S. Congressional subcommittee launched an investigation into widespread coronavirus infections at meatpacking plants on February 1, 2021. The investigation follows reports that nearly 54,000 workers at 569 plants tested positive for the coronavirus, and at least 270 died.
Some organizations such as United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), a labor union representing approximately 1.3 million workers, say that plants should have done more to protect workers. Meanwhile, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is making efforts to improve worker safety, while the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) and the three food manufacturers named in the letter say that they have gone above and beyond to ensure employee safety during the pandemic.
Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-SC), chairman of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, sent a letter to OSHA and to Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods, and JBS USA, which are three of the nation’s largest meatpacking companies. Each company has had multiple COVID-19 outbreaks.
“Public reports indicate that under the Trump Administration, OSHA failed to adequately carry out its responsibility for enforcing worker safety laws at meatpacking plants across the country, resulting in preventable infections and deaths,” Clyburn wrote. “It is imperative that the previous administration’s shortcomings are swiftly identified and rectified to save lives in the months before coronavirus vaccinations are available for all Americans.”
In response, Marc Perrone, president of UFCW International, said in a statement, “Chairman Clyburn’s investigation will bring the transparency needed to hold the meatpacking industry accountable for the safety failures that resulted in hundreds of workers dying and thousands continuing to get sick from this virus every month.”
Policy expert Patricia A. Wester, CEO and founder of the Association for Food Safety Auditing Professionals in Gainesville, Fla., also believes Congress’ letter was justified and says that it highlights a serious regulatory and jurisdictional gap between OSHA and USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). She says food facilities should have followed CDC Guidance for Businesses and Employers Responding to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) to combat outbreaks, and expanded them to cover activities not addressed by that document, which would allow others to benefit from their experiences. Furthermore, FSIS has well-defined boundaries for enforcement action options during food safety events that OSHA appears to lack; the meat industry might have been able to exploit that knowledge gap to further minimize OSHA’s enforcement actions.
In addition to Congress’ letter, in January 2021, President Biden issued an executive order calling on OSHA to increase protections for workers. In response, OSHA published new guidance to help employers and workers identify risks of exposure to contracting COVID-19 in the workplace. The agency is currently reviewing its enforcement efforts related to COVID-19 to identify any changes that could better protect workers and ensure equity in enforcement, an OSHA spokesperson tells Food Quality & Safety.
The agency is also working to establish a new national emphasis program to focus OSHA’s efforts on violations, such as those at meat processing plants, that put the largest number of workers at risk for contracting COVID-19.
In commenting on OSHA’s new guidelines, Wester says that the new document aligns with CDC’s COVID-19 guidance document, although gaps remain in both documents. As guidance documents, they are only recommendations, not enforceable requirements, handicapping OSHA’s enforcement authority. There are also operational gaps regarding how to prevent further spread when a worker tests positive for the virus, such as eliminating the common practice of temporarily storing PPE on a crowded, shared coat rack when workers leave production areas for breaks.
“In the days ahead, these gaps will need to be closed and enforcement language strengthened to prevent continued outbreak events in these facilities,” Wester says.
The letter from Congress criticized OSHA for fining meatpacking companies based on a company’s annual revenue and how much they pay their executives. In response, an OSHA spokesperson tells FQ&S that OSHA cites based on the hazard and the maximum penalty amount set by Congress. When setting a penalty amount, OSHA begins with the maximum penalty, then makes adjustments based on various factors outlined in Chapter 6 of the Field Operations Manual. “While monetary fines are effective enforcement tools, the most important outcome of an OSHA citation is that it requires the employer to abate the underlying workplace hazard, removing workers from dangerous situations,” the spokesperson says.
Wester says COVID-19 exposed OSHA’s weaknesses, just as it did in healthcare and so many other infrastructure areas. “Underfunded and under resourced, OSHA was most likely unprepared for the scope, scale, and consumer impact of the outbreaks, making it even more susceptible to prioritizing operational needs over worker safety. Added political pressure from the White House to reopen as essential businesses would certainly have tipped the scales even further to placing production needs over employee safety,” she says.
Meatpacking Plants Tout Their Efforts
Despite the Congressional subcommittee’s criticism, spokespeople for meatpacking plants say their companies made extensive efforts to keep workers safe. In a February 1, 2021 statement, Keira Lombardo, chief administrative officer of Smithfield Foods in Smithfield, Va., said, “From early in the pandemic, we have taken extraordinary measures to protect our team members from the virus and we have met or exceeded the prevailing federal, state, and local health and safety guidance.”
Lombardo said the company invested more than $700 million in critical measures to protect employees, including on-site COVID-19 pre-screening and testing facilities; air purification systems; extensive physical barriers at work stations; employee protective equipment; significant facility modifications and expansion to ensure distancing in key areas, such as break and lunch rooms; thousands of sanitation stations and prominent banners and signage that outline and encourage safe practices in multiple languages; and additional new employees dedicated to ensuring that distancing and sanitation practices are implemented correctly.
Smithfield Foods has also implemented liberal leave and pay policies that guaranteed pay for nearly 13,000 employees who were quarantined but did not test positive for COVID-19.
During a February 9, 2021, earnings call, Tyson Foods’ President and CEO Dean Banks announced the hiring of a chief medical officer to ensure that the organization continues to remain vigilant and aggressive toward overall team member wellness. The company also hired 200 new nurses and administrative staff, bringing the total occupational health staff to almost 600 team members. “With these resources, we’re advancing our health and safety priorities to support our vaccine rollout and build our wellness programs,” Banks said.
In addition, Banks said Tyson, headquartered in Springdale, Ark., has extended an ongoing partnership with a clinical services provider to prepare for broad vaccine distribution and to ensure that U.S. team members are educated across multiple languages about the COVID-19 vaccine. Meanwhile, thousands of team members continue to be tested every week; approximately half of its workforce was tested as of February 9.
Tyson Foods has also invested hundreds of millions of dollars during the pandemic to transform its U.S. facilities with protective measures, from walk-through temperature scanners and workstation dividers to social distance monitors and always-on testing, and also provided additional team member pay and benefits, says Gary Mickelson, a company spokesperson for Tyson Foods.
Since the onset of the pandemic, JBS USA, in Greeley, Colo., has invested more than $200 million in health and safety interventions, provided more than $160 million in bonuses and permanent increased pay, and donated more than $50 million to support local communities, said Nikki Richardson, a spokesperson for the company, in February.
JBS USA has also implemented hundreds of safety measures, including offering unlimited PPE, constructing permanent physical barriers, establishing physical distancing protocols, and installing hospital-grade ventilation systems in all facilities. JBS USA provides immediate testing to all symptomatic team members and close contacts and has conducted more than 45,000 surveillance tests of asymptomatic team members to date. It has voluntarily removed vulnerable population groups with full pay and benefits, covered 100% of all COVID-19 related health expenses for team members and family members enrolled in its health plan, and offered a $100 incentive bonus for any U.S. team member willing to get vaccinated.
In response to the congressional letter, NAMI, a voice for the meat and poultry industry, issued a statement on February 1 maintaining that more than $1.5 billion in comprehensive protections have been instituted since the spring, successfully cutting average case rates for meat and poultry workers five times lower in December 2020 than they were in May 2020, while infections rocketed up by nine times for the general population in the same period.
“The meat and poultry industry is focused on continuing these effective protections, reaffirmed by the Biden Administration, and ensuring frontline meat and poultry workers are vaccinated as soon as possible, as employers, unions, civil rights leaders, and governments around the world agree these workers should be among the first vaccinated after healthcare workers,” the organization’s statement said.
Others Cite Room for Improvement
In contrast to the meatpacking plants and NAMI, some organizations and policy experts had different opinions on how plants have handled the pandemic.
Wester says the meat industry needs to assess the real impact of ever-increasing line speeds and finally prioritize worker safety over production demands. “Incentives that emphasize attendance over worker health need to be eliminated,” she says. “Testing platforms that provide real-time results need to be deployed industry-wide to prevent asymptomatic transmission among workers. Better track and trace systems are needed to detect community spread as early as possible.”
Wester says it’s also worth noting that meat packaging plants made little mention of reduced line speed as a mitigation step. “Instead, barriers were placed between workers that appear to be a sanitation nightmare, raising the question of increased food safety hazards in the future,” she says.
Carl S. Custer, MS, a retired food microbiologist in Bethesda, Md., also believes that meatpacking facilities should have done more to protect employees from COVID-19 when it became evident that plants were hot spots. “I’ve seen floor managers impede plant management safety policy to improve production because their bonus is based on productivity,” he said. “I’ve also seen workers disregard plant safety policy out of ignorance and the urge to speed up.”
UFCW’s Perrone said in statement, “Under President Trump, OSHA was asleep at the switch and consistently failed to enforce the safety standards needed to protect America’s meatpacking workers. This new investigation will help to shine a light on these failures and ensure the industry and regulators take the steps necessary to better protect these essential workers as the pandemic continues. As the union for our country’s meatpacking workers, UFCW is calling on every CEO in the industry to fully cooperate with this investigation so the American people learn the truth about these safety failures and can trust that immediate action will be taken to ensure these outbreaks never happen again.”
As the congressional investigation continues, Custer expects that establishments will insist that workers and supervisors follow and impose CDC guidelines regarding COVID-19. If not, they risk litigation and regulatory interventions.