Thursday, September 16, 2021

Covid-19 toll on meatpackers may be worse than thought; House panel asks processors for data on deaths

"The toll the coronavirus has taken on the meatpacking industry may be greater than currently thought, said a House panel on Wednesday in asking Cargill and National Beef, two of the largest U.S. meat processors, to disclose how many of their workers had contracted Covid-19 and how many had died," Chuck Abbott reports for the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN). "South Carolina’s James Clyburn, chair of the panel, the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, said one study suggested that the infection rate for National Beef was three to five times higher than for other large processors."

At least 298 meatpacking workers have died from Covid-19 and more than 59,000 have been infected with the coronavirus, according to FERN's Covid-19 Mapping Project, which halted on Sept. 2 because it was so difficult to gather info. "Most meat companies never released information about Covid-19 in their workforces, public sources of that information withered over time, and there is no federal count," Abbott reports.

The hearing is part of a larger House investigation of major meatpackers. In February the sub-committee began it with letters to JBS USA, Tyson Foods, and Smithfield Foods. "Like the letters to Cargill and National Beef, those letters asked the companies how many of their employees had fallen ill or died of Covid-19 and what safeguards they had put in place to protect them. In addition, the subcommittee asked Occupational Safety and Health Administration what it had done to protect workers," Abbott reports.

The committee also apparently sought to uncover how much sway meatpackers had in an April 2020 order from President Trump declaring them essential and ordering them to stay open during the pandemic, Abbott reports. Besides information on worker illnesses and deaths, Cargill was asked for all communications with the administration regarding the order. Emails obtained by ProPublica in September 2020 showed that meatpackers essentially wrote Trump's order.

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