"More than 150 of America’s largest meat processing plants operate in counties where the rate of coronavirus infection is already among the nation’s highest, based on the media outlets' analysis of slaughterhouse locations and county-level covid-19 infection rates," Kyle Bagenstose, Sky Chadde and Matt Wynn report. "These facilities represent more than 1 in 3 of the nation’s biggest beef, pork and poultry processing plants. Rates of infection around these plants are higher than those of 75 percent of other U.S. counties, the analysis found."
There aren't any shortages yet, because the nation still has plenty of meat in storage, but meatpackers are operating at 60 percent of capacity, the reporters found. Shortages could come if workers continue to sicken and plants continue to close, they write, "but experts say there's little risk of a dwindling protein supply because, given the choice between worker safety and keeping meat on grocery shelves, the nation’s slaughterhouses will choose to produce food."
The meatpacking plant outbreaks shed an uncomfortable light on working conditions that can encourage the spread of infectious diseases, especially among undocumented immigrant workers who are loathe to report safety violations for fear of losing their jobs, Bagenstose, Chadde and Wynn report: "The meatpacking industry already has been notorious for poor working conditions even before the coronavirus pandemic. Meat and poultry employees have among the highest illness rates of all manufacturing employees and are less likely to report injuries and illness than any other type of worker, federal watchdog reports have found. And the plants have been called out numerous times for refusing to let their employees use the bathroom, even to wash their hands – one of the biggest ways to reduce the spread of the coronavirus."
Lax state and federal oversight hasn't helped. "Amplifying the danger is that, in many places, meat processing companies are largely on their own to ensure an outbreak doesn’t spread across their factory floors," the reporters write. "Factory workers, unions, and even managers say the federal government – including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration – has done little more than issue non-enforceable guidance. On its website, for example, the CDC has released safety guidelines for critical workers and businesses, which primarily promote common-sense measures of sanitization and personal distancing. State health departments have also taken a backseat role in all but a few places."