Even those who dismiss the risks posed by the novel coronavirus would have a hard time minimizing the fear of workers in meatpacking plants.
In Black Hawk County, Iowa, where Tyson Foods has a major pork processing plant in the city of Waterloo, the number of COVID-19 cases skyrocketed from 62 to 1,523 — more than 1 percent of its 132,000 residents — in a three week period in April. Deaths rose from zero to 15. Ninety percent of the cases are “attributed or related to the plant,” the county’s public health director said.
The county sheriff, Tony Thompson, wasn’t surprised by the spread of the disease, he told The Associated Press. He toured the Tyson plant April 10 and saw inadequate social distancing and a lack of personal protective equipment, leaving its 2,800 workers prone to passing on the virus among themselves.
Those workers then spread it into the county’s grocery stores, nursing homes and other essential businesses, he said.
The story has repeated itself in the hot spots of Worthington, Minnesota, and Moore County in the Texas Panhandle, where more than 250 cases are linked to a JBS USA processing plant. That part of Texas is responsible for a quarter of the nation’s fed beef supply.
The Texas example pales compared to other plants. Smithfield Foods shut its facilities after 900 workers at a South Dakota plant became infected. Tyson did the same with a pork processing site in Indiana after 800 were sickened.
While the virus is a new element to the dangers of working in the meatpacking industry, no one would be jealous of the working conditions in the plants. They are part of the reason the virus has spread so easily, with difficulties with physical distancing, hygiene, crowded living and transportation conditions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Americans remain largely unconcerned with that as long as they can put meat on the table. That could be a problem soon, however, as the amount of product in the supply chain shrinks and the cost of what’s in the display case skyrockets. Both are a result of meatpacking workers fearing for their health and their lives.
“They’re afraid of catching the virus. They’re afraid of spreading it to family members. Some of them are afraid of dying,” the Rev. Jim Callahan of the Church of St. Mary of Worthington, a city of 13,000 that has attracted immigrants from across the globe to work at the JBS pork processing plant, told the AP.
“One guy said to me, ‘I risked my life coming here. I never thought something that I can’t see could take me out.’”
Producers said they are adopting new safeguards based on CDC recommendations, including enhanced disinfection and that workers get regular screening for the virus, more space from co-workers and training materials in their native languages.
From this crisis is an opportunity for companies and regulators to improve the working conditions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 now and better protect their workers in the future. The plants should remain open to provide a crucial foodstuff for Americans, but they cannot do so in an environment that will needlessly risk the lives of the people who work there.
The first step toward protecting the nation’s meat supply is to protect the people responsible for its processing. Without adequate safeguards, the disease will continue to spread within meatpacking facilities, spiking prices and cutting availability.