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Late last spring and early summer when COVID-19 was raging among the nation's meatpackers there were plenty of questions and few answers. Workers at some of America's largest meatpackers – notably Hong Kong-listed WH Group Ltd Smithfield Foods, Brazilian owned JBS USA, and Tyson Foods – were infected by coronavirus and dying at alarming rates.

The Centers for Disease Control last February had issued voluntary, non-binding recommendations to reduce COVID infection at packing plants effectively leaving it up to Big-Meat to keep its employees protected. 

And in April the POTUS used the Defense Production Act to issue an executive order naming meat packers “critical infrastructure” and requiring Big-Meat packing plants to remain open. 

Despite the CDC guidance coronavirus cases and death continued to mount among Big Meat workers.

Members of Congress wanted answers. What exactly was Big Meat doing to battle COVID? Exactly when did Big Meat begin mitigation efforts? Why were Big Meat's efforts to stem coronavirus infection not producing desired results? And that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Democrat Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker sent a letter to Tyson Foods CEO Noel White, JBS USA President and CEO Andre Nogueira, Cargill Chief Executive Officer David MacLennan,and Smithfield Foods President and CEO Kenneth Sullivan demanding an accounting of Big Meat COVID response.

On July 20, 2020, Booker and Warren released their findings, even as COVID continued to run seemingly unabated among Big Meat packing houses. Even a cursory reading showed Big Meat likely didn't take the Congressional request seriously and evaded many questions.

Among the facts Booker and Warren reported:

  • Not one of the companies gave specifics on the number of COVID-19 cases or deaths in their plants. 
  • While all four companies said they were "meeting" or "exceeding" CDC standards, the continued increase in COVID-19 cases in meatpacking plants suggests voluntary guidelines are not sufficient.
  • The federal government has done little to monitor companies' implementation of safety measures during the pandemic.
  • The lack of consistency in the companies' responses about the actions they are taking to protect workers - and the failure of those actions to curb the growing number of COVID-19 cases among their workers -underscores the need for an OSHA Emergency Temporary Standard. 
  • None of the companies are consistently implementing the CDC's recommendation of 6-foot social distancing on processing lines.

In short Warren and Booker believed Big Meat's COVID response was a hot mess.

But BigMeat probably thought nothing would come of dodging Warren and Booker. After all, didn't the POTUS have their back?

Well, times are changing, and Big Meat won't be able to be so caviler to the shiny new House Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis chaired by U.S. Representative Jim Clyburn. The South Carolina Democrat wasted no time after his appointment to demand Big Meat to account for its COVID response. 

Clyburn sent letters to Smithfield, JBS, and Tyson demanding the companies provide “all documents” relating to complaints or concerns submitted by employees, a description of how those complaints are tracked, any documents related to federal or state inspections, and all information regarding infections and deaths at its plants.

Clyburn also suggested that the federal government needs a serious overhaul in dealing with worker safety. Clyburn suggested that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration failed its mission “to adequately carry out its responsibility for enforcing worker safety laws” and he called for OSHA to initiate a temporary emergency standard for worker place safety.

OSHA is meeting March 15 to consider emergency standards.

As for Big Meat, consider yourself on notice. Clyburn, with the power of subpoena, isn't going to take Big Meat evasive answers with a grain of salt. 

The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting says in excess of 45,000 workers at meatpacking plants have been infected with COVID at least 240 have died.

For its part, Big Meat is trying to get ahead of what could be testy hearings up on Capitol Hill. Smithfield, Tyson and JBS say the companies collectively have spent in excess of $1.5 billion on COVID. There's more to the story yet to be revealed. A lot more.

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.