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For those of us who cover Big Agriculture on a daily basis it was no secret.

It was just a matter of time before the novel coronavirus would infect thousands of workers at the nation’s meat processing plants.

Plants with marquee names.  Smithfield. Cargill. JBS USA. Tyson Foods.  Pilgrims Pride.

Anyone who has visited one of these plants would instinctively know that without strict safety measures they are corona virus breeding grounds.  Too many people working for all pratical purposes shoulder to shoulder in relatively confined spaces.  Crowded locker rooms and cafeterias.  Grueling work hours.  An industry where workers say bathroom breaks are a perk.  An industry where, until COVID-19 showed up, employees went to work sick in order to avoid accumulating demerits that can result in firing.

A huge Smithfield Foods meatpacking plant in South Dakota has become the nation’s poster child for the havoc coronavirus has created.  At least 777 confirmed COVID-19 cases out of a workforce of 3,700.  It didn’t need to be this way.

As early as March 25 a whistle blower sent a message to the Argus Leader’s Facebook based- tip line.  The message read, “Can you please look into Smithfield.  They do have a positive [Covid-19] case and are planning to stay open.”

The Argus Leader reported out the facts on March 26:

“Smithfield's president and CEO Kenneth Sullivan said Friday that the company and its workers, along with farmers and supply chain partners, were "a crucial part of our nation’s response to COVID-19," and that Smithfield would maintain normal operations during the pandemic.”

On March 26 Smithfield didn’t or couldn’t respect the threat of COVID-19.  And the cases quickly mounted up:  80, 190, 238.   On April 15 when Smithfield indefinitely shuttered the plant it was the nation’s top COVID-19 hot spot.

I’m not singling out Smithfield.  There’s plenty of similar stories at Big Meat across the nation.  Two meat workers at an Iowa Tyson Food plant have died of COVID-19 with another 148 infected.  Five deaths and 103 infections at a JBS USA Colorado meatpacking plant.  A google search will reveal many many more.

It just a fact.  Big Meat hasn’t done enough to protect the safety of its labor force and continues to be slow to respond.  It’s not surprising.  Because for Big Meat it’s keep the lines running at all costs.  Americans are hungry right?  Got to feed them right?  Cheap food for profit fast right?

And now the dirty little secret that should give you pause.  The federal government is in on it.  Big Meat has been for the most part shielded from labor disputes from meat workers for decades.

COVID-19 is just the latest example.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is tasked with protecting Big Meat workers.  But OSHA has been asleep at the switch when it comes to effectively investigating workplace safety and fining businesses who violate worker rights.  Right now it’s as bad as it's ever been because the Trump Administration has slashed the OSHA staff to the bone – the agency has the fewest inspectors in its 48-year history.

How bad is it?  Earlier this month workers at food plants in Illinois, Colorado, Georgia, and Virginia walked off the job rather than risk their lives.

The U.S. House of Representatives had a measure in the COVID-19 bailout package that would have forced OSHA to create temporary rules to protect front line essential workers from the virus.  The U.S. Senate said hell NO and blocked the measure. 

That leaves it up to Big Meat to police itself on food worker safety.  Late to the party and in the glaring spotlight of the nation’s biggest media outlets Big Meat is finally waking up and taking tentative steps to protect workers.  It’s not enough.

Meanwhile the Centers for Disease Control has toured the Smithfield South Dakota plant and is working on a plan to get it reopened.  Where the CDC lands should tells us whether the feds are truly willing to do what’s necessary to protect workers even if it means reduced profits at Big Meat and potential delays in stocking shelves at retail.

About Dave Dickey

Dave Dikcey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for the Midwest Center covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. His opinions are his own and do not reflect the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.