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Thousands in the US meat industry get infected as processing plants become breeding grounds for coronavirus

As of 27 April, 4,913 workers employed in 115 plants in the meat-producing sector, across 19 states have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and 20 have died
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The coronavirus lockdown forced many businesses in various industries to shut down all operations, except for those classified as "essential" businesses. Among them, are all the food processing industries that are crucial to the national food supply, as people continue to scramble for groceries that will last them for longer periods of time. Since the beginning of lockdown, meat industries had upped production to meet the growing demands that came with customers stockpiling food.

That meant the all of its employees were retained and with instructions to adhere to the social distancing and sanitation guidelines, they continued to render their services is mass-producing meat products. 

Now, thousands of US workers in the meat industry have been infected with the coronavirus with at least 20 fatalities, new data compiled by the federal government illustrated. In recent weeks, with the pandemic swooping over the country and leaving no state unscathed, beef, pork, and poultry processing plants have emerged as hot spots for the deadly virus. The nation's meat industry workforce is comprised of nearly half a million people, who often work in congested and unsanitary conditions, which has been a cause for concern during this unprecedented crisis.

Dozens of meat production units have been forced to temporarily cease operations as the number of positive cases and fatalities have only intensified. 

According to a report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on 8 May,  4,913 workers employed in 115 plants in the meat-producing sector, across 19 states have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and 20 have died, as of 27 April. 17 states released data on how many workers were employed in the affected units and researchers concluded that 3 percent of more than 130,000 workers had been infected by the novel coronavirus.

In Iowa and South Dakota, nearly a fifth of the total employees across the largest slaughterhouses in the states have fallen ill.  

A man shops in the meat section at a grocery store, April 28, 2020, Washington, DC (Getty Images)

"Among workers, socioeconomic challenges might contribute to working while feeling ill, particularly if there are management practices such as bonuses that incentivize attendance," the CDC researchers said. "In addition, some employees were incentivized to work while ill as a result of medical leave and disability policies and attendance bonuses that could encourage working while experiencing symptoms."

While President Trump and other federal officials were constantly reassuring the public that there was absolutely no shortage in the food supply, the meat industry had up its work-shifts to overtime mode in order to meet the surge in demand for animal protein. However, this is not the case with only the US, as meat plants spread across the world in countries including Spain, Ireland, Canda, Australia, and Brazil have reportedly become breeding grounds for the contagion. 

“One, two, or three meatpacking plants—fine, you might expect that. But these outbreaks are clearly a worldwide phenomenon,” said Nicholas Christakis, head of the Human Nature Lab at Yale to Wired. “To me, that’s evidence that there’s something distinctive about meatpacking that’s adding to people’s risks of catching Covid-19.”

(Getty Images)

The major risk to meat plant workers comes from being in close proximity to each other for prolonged periods of time, per the CDC report. With the growing demand for meat and overtime work, at least a thousand meatpackers go through one eight-hour shift, packed cheek by jowl, and going about their duties. The carcasses swiftly shift, hanging by hooks or laid on conveyor belts, which means meatpackers have to work at a rapid pace, which is physically exhausting as they have to cut through so many dead animals.

This, in turn, leads to difficulty in breathing and keeping their facemasks on properly positioned over their mouth. The CDC has recommended that meat plants slow down production operations and employ a few workers at a time, so they can alternate shifts to limit employees in the vicinity, and practice social distancing. 

But these processing units have other characteristics that may be harder to modify, yet contribute to them becoming an active incubator for the virus. The cold temperature inside the plant coupled with the aggressive ventilation system to help prevent the meat from decaying or getting contaminated by pathogens that could fester infection among workers, Sima Asadi, a chemical engineer at UC Davis told Wired.

“Low temperatures allow the virus to stay viable outside the body for longer, increasing the survival of the virus in the air,” she says. “That really increases the risk of infection in these plants.” 

(Gett Images)

A USDA livestock analyst predicted at the end of February, that America's meat industry would supposedly have its biggest year yet with the ever-growing demand food boosted by economic growth and low unemployment before it got banjaxed by the COVID-19 pandemic. By late April, the contagion had drastically altered the global economy and the agricultural industry to such a great extent that one of America's biggest meat producers, Tyson Foods, issued a warning in a full-page New York Times advertisement that the "Food supply chain is breaking."

Only days later, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to keep meat processing plants open to rid the shortage in meat and sustain the nation's food supply chain, while pledging to provide them with more protective gear. 

The meat industries have failed in protecting meatpackers from the coronavirus, which has sparked a serious threat to the nation's meat production, since World War II. Will Sawyer, the lead economist at CoBank, an agricultural financial institution said that US beef and pork production had declined by 40 percent in April. Sawyer tod Bloomberg that US consumers could see 30 percent less meat in grocery stores by 25 May, at prices 20 percent higher than last year.