The number of COVID-19 outbreaks at meat and poultry plants continues to rise, even as facilities institute new safety protocols. The Wall Street Journal reported in early July that plants in Georgia experienced record highs in June, and similar increases in cases have been seen in other large meat- and poultry-producing states such as Arkansas, Alabama, and North Carolina. These statistics have caused several in the meat industry to speak out and demand change.
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The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), representing more than 1.3 million workers, is worried by the trend. “America’s meatpacking workers have been on the frontlines of this pandemic since day one, putting themselves in harm’s way to make sure our families have the food we need,” a spokesperson for UFCW tells Food Quality & Safety. “As COVID-19 continues to put our country’s meatpacking workers at risk, we must take action to ensure workers stay safe on the job.”
While many meat and poultry plants are adding safety measures to help mitigate the spread of the virus, they are also increasing processing line speeds and running extra shifts, which some industry professionals believe is contributing to the continuing surge in cases.
In an effort to ensure the safety of all members at every plant it represents, UFCW is calling for plants to slow line speeds, compensate workers affected by the virus, mandate social distancing, increase testing, and keep a registry of workplace coronavirus outbreaks.
This is a sentiment being heard from many other groups and organizations around the U.S. “The meat and poultry industry remains vigilant in the fight against spread of the virus,” says Sarah Little, vice president of communications for the North American Meat Institute. “Facilities are still implementing CDC/OSHA guidelines to protect employees; however, some companies that were able to avoid the virus are now being impacted in states where positive cases are surging.”
A July issue of CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report aggregated data on COVID-19 in meat and poultry plants across the industry and highlighted not only how risky it is for all employees, but the potential concerns regarding minority employees specifically. According to the report, there were 16,233 COVID-19 cases and 86 COVID-19–related deaths among meatpacking workers at 239 facilities in 28 states as of July 14. Demographic characteristics revealed that Hispanics represented a large percentage of the meat industry’s COVID-19 illnesses.
Human Rights Groups Call for Action
Earlier this month, a coalition of more than 120 human rights groups sent a letter to Tyson Foods Inc., demanding the company address the increasing number of COVID-19 cases affecting workers at its chicken, pork, and beef processing facilities. As of July 17, more than 8,500 Tyson employees at 37 poultry, pork, and beef plants have tested positive for COVID-19, an infection count more than double that of any other meatpacker. The groups are calling for more PPE, paid sick leave, slowing of slaughter line speeds, more testing, and ensuring workers can practice physical distancing.