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Nearly 90% of major US meat plants had COVID-19 cases in the first year of the pandemic – data

Nearly 90% of major US meat plants had COVID-19 cases in the first year of the pandemic - data

Workers wear face masks at JBS USA’s meat-packing plant, where two staff members have died from coronavirus (COVID-19) disease as it remains operational in Greeley, Colorado, U.S. April 8, 2020. Photo taken April 8, 2020 REUTERS /Jim Urquhart/File photo

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Jan 14 (Reuters) – Nearly 90% of processing plants owned by five major U.S. meat companies had COVID-19 cases in 2020 and early 2021, an analysis of public data from Reuters shows as a congressional committee investigates how meat processors are dealing with coped with the pandemic.

The US House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis began its investigation last year when there was evidence that the plants were major spreaders of COVID-19 and that workers were suffering unusually severe outbreaks. It is not clear what the consequences of the investigation may be.

“The impact of the coronavirus on key workers in the meat packaging industry has been both dire and avoidable,” Subcommittee Chairman representative James Clyburn told Reuters. “As our investigation continues, I reiterate my call on meat processors to make widespread changes and immediately provide safe working conditions for their employees.”

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Although the spread of COVID-19 at meat factories was widely reported in the media in the first year of the crisis, the percentage of large packaging companies with multiple cases has not been reported before.

Data from meat packers Tyson Foods (TSN.N), JBS, Cargill, Smithfield Foods and National Beef made public in October showed 59,000 cases of COVID-19 and 269 deaths among their employees between March 2020 and February 1, 2021. Both figures were around three times higher than previous estimates.

Reuters compared that data, including company locations with COVID-19 cases, to publicly available company records and websites listing the companies’ main processing plants to determine the percentage of facilities with multiple cases.

The analysis showed multiple cases at 218 of the 247 factories owned by the five companies in the United States during the period. That’s 88.2%. For each company, rates ranged from 82% of JBS’62 US plants — including those of its subsidiary Pilgrim’s Pride — to 100% of National Beef’s eight plants.

Mark Lauritsen of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents meat processors, said the numbers “reflected and confirmed how bad the initial outbreaks were in meat packaging.”

Reports of outbreaks at meat plants have decreased since the first year of the pandemic, but infections from the Omicron variant are worrying, according to meat companies and union officials.

Tyson spokesperson Gary Mickelson didn’t comment on the percentage of company plants with cases, but said the company spent $810 million on COVID-19 preventative measures and started providing paid sick leave to vaccinated workers this month.

Jim Monroe, Smithfield’s vice president of corporate affairs, called Reuters’ analysis “misleading” and said one of the reasons for the high number of cases was due to “frequent and widespread testing” of employees. Monroe also pointed to Smithfield’s efforts to protect its employees, including by providing protective equipment such as face shields and installing sanitation stations.

National Beef, Cargill and JBS did not respond to a request for comment.

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Reporting by Leah Douglas; Editing by Cynthia Osterman

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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