Coronavirus outbreaks climb at U.S. meatpacking plants despite protections, Trump order

Rachel Axon, Kyle Bagenstose, Sky Chadde

Coronavirus outbreaks at U.S. meatpacking plants continue to soar as the beleaguered industry ramps up production, scales back plant closures and tries to return to normal in the weeks after President Donald Trump declared it an essential operation. 

Trump’s April 28th executive order followed the industry’s dire warnings of meat shortages and invoked the Defense Production Act to compel slaughterhouses and processing plants to remain open. 

The order had a chilling effect on the steady drumbeat of closures that had come to symbolize the crisis throughout April and early May. Nearly three dozen coronavirus-affected plants temporarily shuttered in the month leading up to Trump’s executive order. In the five weeks since then, just 13 have closed, according to tracking from the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.

Meat production, which had briefly tanked, quickly rebounded after the order to near pre-coronavirus levels and quelled consumer fears of pork, beef and poultry shortages. 

But the number of coronavirus cases tied to meatpacking plants has more than doubled since then, topping 20,400 infections across 216 plants in 33 states, the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting found.

At least 74 people have died. 

That’s despite widespread implementation of protective measures like temperature checks, plastic barriers and social distancing meant to curb the virus’ spread inside the plants. Some of the recent outbreaks happened at facilities that had taken such steps. 

Tyson Foods, for example, announced in mid-April it was providing face masks to all employees and installing barriers between workers. Since then, 24 of its plants have reported outbreaks, including two in Iowa that sickened more than 800 workers total. The company had just five plants with outbreaks prior to the announcement of safety measures.

Likewise, Smithfield Foods said it was installing barriers, adding more hand-sanitizing stations and "enhancing cleaning and disinfection" at its facilities after an outbreak at Sioux Falls, South Dakota, plant in early April. Since then, 11 of its plants have reported outbreaks, including one in Southern California in late May. It had just one plant outbreak prior to the announcement of safety measures.

Other plants have implemented no protective measures or have failed to enforce them.

One federal meat inspector in the Midwest told USA TODAY that workers in several plants she visits on the job were not wearing masks and practiced only limited social distancing. Some, she said, had also recently tested positive for COVID-19.

“I’m thinking, ‘Wow, I don’t think I’m safe here,' ” said the inspector, who agreed to an interview on the condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to the media. 

Even after informing a supervisor at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service about the lax conditions inside the plants, she said, she was told that as long as she had a mask, she had to work. Otherwise, she said, she was told she could use vacation time or take unpaid leave.

“I shouldn’t be forced to not take pay or use my vacation, or take the chance of losing my life,” she said.

Across the United States, some of the highest spikes in coronavirus cases recently occurred in counties with one or more meatpacking plants – Buena Vista County, Iowa; Beadle County, South Dakota; Yell County, Arkansas; and Titus County, Texas, for example. All saw their case counts more than double in the past two weeks, a USA TODAY data analysis found.

Tyson Foods installed plastic barriers between worker stations at its meat and poultry plants to protect against transmission of the coronavirus.

'Callous disregard' for health

Experts say Trump’s executive order prioritized meat production over the lives of plant workers, many of whom are rural, immigrant and undocumented and who face already dangerous conditions for low wages. 

“I think it’s a callous disregard for the health, safety and even lives of the people who work for you,” said Lawrence Gostin, a Georgetown professor and director of the WHO Collaborating Center on National & Global Health Law. "Employers and government, including the president, hold a duty to every American to keep them safe, and there’s a breach of that duty."

The White House did not respond to requests for comment on the effect of the executive order or the continued rise in COVID-19 cases across slaughterhouses and processing facilities.

Meatpacking industry officials said they’re working with local and federal health officials to protect workers against the coronavirus and that the plants are safer today than they were at the time of the executive order. 

“We strongly believe the safety measures we’ve put in place are helping to protect our team members and minimize the spread of the virus in the communities where we operate,” said Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson.

Without the safety measures in place, the case counts might have been even higher, said KatieRose McCullough, director of regulatory and scientific affairs at the North American Meat Institute, an industry lobbying group. 

Medical staff prepare to test workers for Covid-19 at Rantoul Foods on Friday, May 8, 2020, as part of a two-day mass testing event.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union, many times an adversary to major meatpacking companies, also vouched for the industry’s efforts.

Mark Lauritsen, the union’s director of food processing, meatpacking and manufacturing, said conditions at plants where the UFCW represents workers have almost “universally improved.” That’s particularly true, he said, in facilities that closed amid outbreaks to fully rework their processes before reopening.

“It really gave us the opportunity to push these employers to take that down time to reengineer and increase the safety protocols,” Lauritsen said. “An expansion of (personal protective equipment), enhanced sanitation, all of the other things we were pushing. Those things have all taken place.”

“But I want to be clear,” Lauritsen said. “There’s still a lot of work to be done.”

Some worker protections, though, have started to roll back. 

The USDA rescinded its policy that all at-risk inspectors can stay home, said Paula Schelling, acting president of the American Federation of Government Employee’s Council 45, citing the workplace improvements that are supposed to take place under the CDC guidance.

Employees are now being provided masks, face shields and hand sanitizer, a USDA plan obtained by USA TODAY shows.

And Tyson recently reinstated a policy that effectively penalizes workers for taking sick leave, although the company said workers sick with COVID-19 or displaying symptoms were being asked to stay home and provided with short-term disability pay.

When asked why the plants continued to have outbreaks, Tyson's Mickelson declined to directly answer but instead said that no one "can say with certainty why COVID-19 affects different communities across the country at different times and in different ways."

Order stopped a likely shutdown

Experts argued Trump’s order doesn’t prevent state and local public health officials from shutting down plants, though it might have discouraged them.

That was certainly the case in St. Joseph, Missouri, where Trump’s order was a “very important” part of the city’s decision to leave a coronavirus-affected meatpacking plant open, the city’s director of health, Debra Bradley, told USA TODAY.

In late April, Bradley and other city leaders debated whether they could close the local Triumph Foods pork processing plant amid numerous complaints that employees were forced to work while sick and a small but steady rise in coronavirus cases. 

“Shut it down,” St. Joseph Mayor Bill McMurray told city attorney Bryan Carter and others in an April 22 email obtained by USA TODAY. With nine cases at Triumph at the time, he pushed for the state to be notified.

“Given the other meatpacking plant problems around the country, I was just very concerned that we were going to grow to a huge number of cases,” McMurray said in an interview.

But Carter said regulations granting local health officials the authority to close “places of public or private assembly” did not apply in a statewide pandemic, according to the emails. Only the state Department of Health and Senior Services could do so.

The next day, Bradley emailed local officials that the state Department of Health and Senior Services drafted a policy allowing local health authorities to close a business in a pandemic.

She added that DHSS Director Randall Williams “asked what Triumph’s threshold was for closing and I told him that I don’t think they intend to close.”

Williams advised waiting on the results of some 2,800 tests the state sent to St. Joseph before deciding. And given the changes Triumph had made – including temperature checks and putting up barriers in the cafeteria – Bradley advised giving the plant time to act.

Trump’s order on April 28 seemed to have stopped any such discussion, according to Bradley’s emails. That day, Carter sent her a link to a CNN article about Trump’s executive order. The article’s headline: “Trump orders meat processing plants to stay open.”

“You may have seen this already, but it looks like closing Triumph may not be an option,” Carter wrote.

Two days later, DHSS announced that 126 Triumph employees had tested positive for coronavirus, including at least 92 who had no symptoms.

To date, 490 Triumph employees have contracted the virus. One of them, a 40-year-old man, has died. He had tested positive on April 22 – the day local officials began debating whether they could close the plant.

Triumph Foods has remained opened despite a petition with more than 7,000 signatures calling for its closure. It has not reported any new cases since May 15. The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The cutting line in the Triumph Foods pork processing facility in St. Joseph during an April 2017 visit by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. The facility employs 2,800 workers and 490 have tested positive for COVID-19.

“It wasn’t until we did the mass testing that we realized how widespread it was within the facility,” Bradley told USA TODAY. “At that point, my staff was essentially saying that because it was so widespread that it wouldn’t really necessarily make a difference whether it was closed or not. And because it is identified as a critical infrastructure facility, we just went ahead and left it open.”

The executive order did not include a specific mandate for plants to remain open. It did, however, suggest some states needlessly closed plants in conflict with recent guidelines jointly issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Those guidelines take priority over any state or local order to close, according to a statement released the same day by OSHA’s lead agency, the U.S. Department of Labor.

Public health agencies face potential litigation if they try to close the plants, experts said. But many agreed that state and local health officials retain the authority to close them.

“What I think we can conclude is that the executive order is meant to add weight to the CDC and OSHA guidance, but it is just that – guidance,” said Jill Krueger, Northern Region director for The Network for Public Health Law. 

Working with plants is generally preferable to shutting them down because it lets public health officials put controls in place that they can't in workers’ homes and communities, said Nathaniel Smith, director of the Arkansas Department of Health and president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.

"We didn't close any down at the time because when it was kind of in vogue to close down we weren't really having any cases or not having very many cases," Smith said. "Now we're having lots of cases, but we're still not closing down. ... If we can make the work site safer, that's a major control point."

Weakened guidelines

The joint guidance issued by OSHA and the CDC and cited in Trump’s executive order says plants must make only “good faith” efforts to keep workers safe.

"Modify the alignment of workstations, including along processing lines, if feasible, so that workers are at least six feet apart in all directions ... when possible,” the guidelines stipulate.

A month later, it’s unclear what, if any, impact the guidelines have had. 

“They can say, ‘Well we tried but it costs too much money,’ then they’re off the hook,” Lauritsen of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union said. The guidelines “are as worthless as the copy paper they’re printed on.”

A car sporting a sign calling for a safe and healthy workplace drives past Smithfield Foods in Sioux Falls, S.D., on April 9, 2020, during a protest on behalf of employees after many workers complained of unsafe working conditions amid the COVID-19 outbreak. The pork processing plant in South Dakota closed temporarily after more than 80 employees tested positive for the coronavirus.

It’s also unclear who’s enforcing the joint guidance. 

It’s not federal food inspectors, said Schelling of the American Federation of Government Employee’s Council 45, the union representing USDA inspectors. 

Despite the government’s official position that the joint guidelines should be in place at every plant, Schelling said regional supervisors and frontline employees have no power to ensure compliance.

“We have no regulation in place that we can hang our hat on that says, ‘Plant, you need to put these controls in place,’ ” Schelling said. “You can have the conversation, but there’s nothing enforceable that can be taken against the plant.”

Officials from OSHA have previously said they can enforce the guidelines under a legal provision that employers have a general duty to provide safe working conditions. But it’s unclear how rigorously the USDA follows up with plants to ensure changes have been made.

While Schelling agreed major companies like Smithfield and Tyson have largely improved their work spaces, smaller plants that employ a few dozen workers and have more limited resources have not.

“There’s no social distancing,” she said. “There’s no PPE that the company employees are being mandated to wear.”

The USDA issued letters to governors and major meatpacking companies on May 5 to set clear expectations for the implementation of the executive order, an agency spokesperson said in an email to USA TODAY. 

“Since then,” the spokesperson said, “the USDA has worked with the CDC and OSHA, state and local leaders and public health officials, and meat processing facilities to affirm they will operate in accordance with the CDC/OSHA guidance to keep these critical facilities open while maintaining worker safety.”

But the industry’s continued inability to prevent the spread of the virus points to an ineffectiveness of those guidelines, said Adam Pulver, an attorney at the watchdog group Public Citizen.

“It’s certainly not like we’re out of the woods and the problems have stopped – we’re still seeing daily reports of outbreaks in plants," Pulver said. "The recommended precautions are not anywhere sufficient to really prevent transmission. The only real way to prevent transmission would require really significantly slowing down and reconfiguring the way these plants operate, spacing out workers in a way that they’re just not willing to do.”

This story is a collaboration between USA TODAY and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. The Center is an independent, nonprofit newsroom based in Illinois offering investigative and enterprise coverage of agribusiness, Big Ag and related issues. Gannett is funding a fellowship at the center for expanded coverage of agribusiness and its impact on communities.