It takes tons of water to put meat on Americans’ plates. But most meat companies don’t ensure conservation in their supply chains.
Climate change is making water more scarce in some areas, but water-intensive meat production isn’t slowing down.
Climate change is making water more scarce in some areas, but water-intensive meat production isn’t slowing down.
The leaders of pork company Smithfield Foods and chicken producer Perdue Farms were in regular contact with government officials as the coronavirus began sweeping through their plants.
It’s well-established that Trump administration officials wanted meatpacking plants to keep operating, often with industry pressure, as workers fell ill and died by the dozens. But new emails obtained by nonprofit Public Citizen show Perdue personally lobbying to keep plants open, including pressing Robert Redfield, the former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director.
One year after COVID-19 infiltrated the meatpacking industry and sparked nationwide plant closures, meat shortage fears and an executive order to keep production lines going, frontline workers continue to face risk.
Since last April, more than 50,000 cases have been tied to the meatpacking industry, and at least 248 workers have died, according to tracking by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.
The industry is especially vulnerable to the coronavirus because the same features that allow a steady churn of cheap meat also provide the perfect breeding ground for airborne diseases: a cramped workplace, a culture of underreporting illnesses, and a cadre of rural, immigrant and undocumented workers who often live and work together because few other jobs are available.
Coronavirus case counts related to meatpacking have fallen since last year amid an industrywide effort to protect workers and the more recent national vaccine rollout. But many facilities still harbor the disease. More than 200 cases were reported in North Carolina in the past couple months alone, according to state data. And at least one worker died as recently as March.
The new Biden administration has promised tougher standards than those implemented under former President Trump, but they haven’t yet been implemented. Accountability, meanwhile, is lacking.
“As the pandemic continues, America’s essential food workers continue to face daily COVID risks on the frontlines in meatpacking and food processing plants across the country,” said Marc Perone, the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, in a press release. The UFCW represents many meatpacking workers.
The union has worked to expand vaccine access to help “prevent the deadly outbreaks we saw last year and keep our food supply secure as this crisis continues,” he said.
Minorities, meanwhile, have largely shouldered the burden. About 90% of infected meatpacking plant workers were people of color, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
These are the same groups struggling to get vaccinated. Minorities and people who speak limited English – a population that staffs meatpacking plants – were less likely to have received vaccines in the first three months of 2021, according to a CDC study released in late March.
Workers who for months have pinned their hopes on vaccines and a new administration still face a dangerous job.
President Joe Biden gave the Occupational Health and Safety Administration a mid-March deadline to decide if it should implement of an “emergency temporary standard” to combat coronavirus in the workplace, including meatpacking plants. This is after OSHA took a hands-off approach to oversight of safety standards during the Trump administration.
But the agency has blown through the deadline with no word of its decision.
“OSHA has been working diligently to consider what standards may be necessary,” a Department of Labor spokesperson told USA TODAY and the Midwest Center, “and is taking the time to get this right.”
COVID-19 cases still a reality
Meatpacking plants seemed to be a driver of COVID-19 cases early in the pandemic.
In April and early May, counties with large populations of meatpacking workers had about 10 times as many cases than all other counties, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture analysis. Another study pinned about 8% of all cases and about 4% of all deaths by mid-summer to the meatpacking industry.
By summertime, though, counties with and without large meatpacking worker populations began to report similar numbers, according to the USDA.
As of late, far fewer cases have been reported in meatpacking plants. JBS, Smithfield Foods and Tyson Foods, the country’s major meatpacking companies, have all said they’ve spent hundreds of millions of dollars on worker protections. Many installed plastic sheeting between workers on the line, provided masks and face shields to employees and take temperatures daily. Some have offered more generous sick leave.
When federal guidelines for preventing the spread of coronavirus in meat and poultry plants came out in April 2020, “companies immediately worked those procedures, practices and methods into their processes,” Sarah Little, a spokeswoman for the North American Meat Institute, said in a previous interview.
But the virus is still a daily reality for many workers.
In North Carolina, where nearly 4,800 workers have tested positive since the pandemic began, more than 200 cases related to the meatpacking industry have been reported in the past couple months, according to state data. At least one meatpacking worker died as recently as March.
The JBS plant in Greeley, Colorado, was one of the first facilities to close a year ago this month, bringing national attention to the plight of workers. When a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention team visited the plant in April 2020, it found the company had provided workers with face coverings that didn’t fit agency guidelines. At least six workers died.
After nearly 300 workers tested positive, the state considered the outbreak resolved on Oct. 20. But, about three weeks later, new cases prompted the state to declare a new outbreak at the plant.
More than 100 workers have tested positive so far, and Colorado considered the outbreak ongoing as of March 31.
Cameron Bruett, a JBS spokesman, said about 75% of workers at the Greeley plant had been vaccinated as of early April.
“Given the continued spread of COVID-19 throughout the U.S.,” he said, “we will maintain all of our in-plant preventive measures, including mandatory mask use, free surveillance testing and social distancing, while ensuring that all of our team members are given the opportunity to get vaccinated as soon as possible.”
Many workers remain unvaccinated
Despite industry efforts, many meatpacking plant workers remain unvaccinated.
About a third of all Tyson plant workers have received the shot. In financial documents, Tyson said it paid pandemic bonuses to about 106,000 workers, and about 30,000 employees have been vaccinated, company spokesman Derek Burleson said.
As supplies become available, the company is offering free, on-site vaccinations, and employees will be compensated up to four hours if they get vaccinated outside work hours, he said.
“We take our responsibility to feed people seriously, and know that by taking care of our team members, our team members will take care of the U.S. food supply chain, from farmers and ranchers to truckers, retailers and restaurants,” Burleson said. “We will continue to do our best to stay ahead of this challenging and ever-evolving pandemic.”
At JBS, 58% of all its plant workers have been vaccinated, spokesman Bruett said, and “active cases represent less than one-third of one percent of our workforce.”
Smithfield did not say how many of its employees have been vaccinated, but spokeswoman Keira Lombardo said plants across the country were facilitating the shot’s distribution.
“This remains an active and ongoing effort at this time,” she said. “There is very low incidence of the novel coronavirus among our employees, and has been for a sustained period.”
Efforts to improve worker safety
Worker safety took a backseat during the Trump administration.
Last year, OSHA received 15% more complaints than 2019, but the agency conducted half as many inspections as in 2019, according to a February report from the labor department’s inspector general.
Many inspections were conducted virtually, a practice the inspector general said probably led to dangerous work environments.
“While remote inspections might help mitigate potential transmission of COVID-19,” the report said, “a reduction in onsite inspections could result in more worksite accidents, injuries, deaths, or employee illnesses.”
Deaths tied to meatpacking plants often went uninvestigated. By January, OSHA had not inspected 26 of the 65 plants where at least one worker had died, USA TODAY and the Midwest Center found.
The Biden administration has taken some steps to rectify the situation.
OSHA announced on March 12 it would emphasize inspecting workplaces that put the most workers at risk of contracting the virus. A labor department spokesperson said this includes places where workers are spaced less than 6 feet apart, such as meatpacking plants.
The agency also said it would re-inspect some workplaces and prioritize on-site inspections unless they could not be done safely.
In addition to the 65 plants that have had deaths, nearly 500 plants have had outbreaks, according to Midwest Center tracking. Since mid-March, OSHA has opened up two follow-up inspections, a spokesperson said.
One is an onsite inspection of an American Foods Group plant in Green Bay, Wisconsin, that had 366 COVID-19 cases, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. And the other is a Tyson Chicken plant in Noel, Missouri, that had 371 cases, according to the Springfield News-Leader.
“Our goal is to fully investigate every complaint we receive,” the department spokesperson said. “Our updated enforcement approach better ensures that we are doing that.”
Caught in the middle of all this are the workers, who have continued clocking into a dangerous job made more dangerous by the pandemic.
Alfredo, who’s employed at an Arkansas Tyson plant and asked to be identified only by his first name to protect his livelihood, has seen firsthand the scarring of the pandemic. On top of the fast-paced work, he said, many of his coworkers have dealt with loss.
“They look destroyed,” he said.
Alfredo has worked at a Chick-N-Quick plant, which is owned by Tyson Foods, in Rogers, Arkansas, for the past three years. He’s worked for Tyson for the past 10. He asked to only be identified with his first name to protect his livelihood. When he spoke to the Midwest Center last summer, he was not confident in the plant’s handling of the pandemic. There have been at least 100 workers infected at the plant. The interview was conducted in Spanish and has been edited for length and clarity. The company’s response is included below.
As told to Ignacio Calderon, USA TODAY Agricultural Data Fellow for the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting
The pandemic was not good for us because we have been exposed daily to getting sick. And it’s not easy working among infected people. And it’s not easy watching your coworkers get sick and die because you think you are next.
To be honest it’s sad because a lot of people, whether men or women, were left widowed. It’s common that a lot of couples work together at these plants. It’s sad because the company didn’t care at all to help widows economically but especially mentally. They didn’t help them at all emotionally because after they come back to work they look destroyed, they look sore after what they’ve suffered being in the hospital with their spouse.
And the company acts like nothing happened. It’s like we are disposable. That’s what we are to the company because if you get sick and die, it doesn’t matter. In the end, there are more people who want to work there and it’s easy for the company to replace us.
They gave us masks around May. And by May, there were already a lot of infected people inside. So they started with masks and they weren’t even medical masks, or professional masks, they were cloth masks. Like a handkerchief. We used those for around two weeks and then they started giving us medical masks.
I was afraid. I didn’t know what to do — if I should go or stay at home. But I decided to go to work because the company was very harsh to us when the pandemic started. They told us, “Anyone who’s afraid of the pandemic and doesn’t want to work, it’s okay, you can stay at home as long as you need, but we are not paying you.” So they put us in that position. And what are you going to do if you don’t work? We have to pay rent, bills and food. People had no other choice but to go to work despite the risk we were running.
Things actually got worse (over the year of the pandemic). They got worse because they did everything they said. They kept their word of not helping us, of not doing anything. And then when more and more people started getting sick and they had to quarantine, the company started running out of people, and the few that were left had to do the job of everyone who was missing.
We were all doing double work with a lot of pressure, we had to deliver in any way possible. Speed lines were increased, production increased, and working days also increased. Lately, we have been working Saturdays and sometimes even Sundays. [Editor’s note: Tyson Foods said in a statement, “The safety of our team members always comes first. There have been times when production lines have slowed to promote worker health and safety.”]
Once in a while (before the pandemic), we worked one Saturday per month. But since the pandemic, it’s every Saturday and since two months ago, we work Sundays, too.
(When his line doesn’t meet production goals,) they ask us why are we slower than other lines? They ask us why are we not reaching the production while other lines are.
For example, in my line, if one day we don’t get to the order amount, around 50,000 pounds per shift per line, they ask us “What’s happening? The first shift finished but why didn’t you?” So that’s how they are pressuring us.
Sometimes we can’t reach the production because we don’t have all the appropriate tools. There are no people. Sometimes other shifts are full but mine is missing people. How are we going to hit the production targets? It’s hard, you can’t say “no.” Because if you say “no” it’s like signing your dismissal.
Whether it’s something good or bad that they are telling you you have to say “yes, it’s okay,” because if you say “no” they take you to HR where they ask you why you are saying “no” to something the company is demanding of you.
When it’s about my rights, the company doesn’t listen. But, when it’s about company rights, then we all have to sign a list of the things they are asking. But if we ask for something? They tell us there’s no time, no translator or anything else, but they never listen.
I am a person who’s fought hard for workers’ rights, for all my coworkers. I’ve had several arguments with managers and they’ve never been able to fire me because in all those arguments I had evidence and I was correct. Otherwise, I would have already been fired.
Thank God I have not been infected. From my line of about 15 to 20 workers, everyone except me and two or three others got infected. And from other lines too, most people had the virus and about 3 died.
(If I got COVID-19,) to start, I would stay at home. And if the company wants me to get to work I wouldn’t go for my safety and that of my coworkers. Because at the company, when a person gets infected and doesn’t have any symptoms, it’s okay for them to keep working. That’s what they told me because one of my coworkers, the line leader, tested positive and he was close to me.
So I went to the managers and asked what they would do since I had a close contact with that person and they told me I could get back to work. I told them, “Look, I am not going to risk getting infected and transmitting it to my coworkers. If you don’t put me in quarantine today, tomorrow I am going to an outside clinic to get tested and then they will put me in quarantine whether you like it or not.” That’s how the company agreed to quarantine me.
I did get paid but (only) because I defended myself, otherwise they wouldn’t have told me I was in close contact with a person that tested positive. I went there because I noticed it. They would not even have mentioned it. Human resources and a manager asked me if I had any symptoms, and when I told them I didn’t, they said, “Then you can go back to work.” And I told them, “I can but I am not going to risk having the virus and transmitting it to more people.” [Editor’s note: Alfredo provided an audio recording of this interaction to confirm it occurred. In a statement, Tyson Foods said, “Our policy is that team members should not come to work if they have COVID-19 or have been exposed to someone who has the virus but rather should stay home and focus on getting better—and we continue to communicate this regularly to all team members.”]
(When we arrive at work,) there is a temperature scanner. People that go with a high temperature get tested again with a different scanner, like a pistol that has a laser. But they never send those people back home if they have a high temperature. They simply ask them if they have any symptoms and then let them through if they are feeling okay.
Once you get inside there is no social distancing, the dining room is very small. People who are coming in mix with people finishing their shift, so you have people from both shifts in a small area. The area where we clock in is a narrow hallway filled with people. Then we go to the area where all the protective equipment is— hairnet, gloves, coat, apron. That area is also small, filled with people only wearing a mask and hand sanitizer that the company put there. Then we go into the production area and everyone is on their own. You have to take care of yourself however you can because you don’t know who’s infected and who’s not because the company doesn’t tell us.
If you ask the health department how many infections there are in that company they tell you there aren’t any cases. So there are two things there. Either that the health department is covering for the company, or the company is not reporting to the health department. How is it possible that they say there aren’t any cases even though there are still a lot of infected people?
You can’t even call it labor abuse anymore, it’s like labor exploitation because they removed the people. Where there were two people now there’s only one. They don’t want to raise our wages, not even while working in a pandemic. They haven’t given us bonuses, a raise to be at the frontline. According to them, we are essential but I don’t understand why they say it if we are not.
Editor’s note: Tyson Foods’ responses to specific questions raised in Alfredo’s comments have been incorporated throughout. An additional statement from Tyson Foods is below:
“We’re deeply saddened by the loss of any team member to COVID-19 and are committed to fighting the virus. Our top priority has been and always will be the health and safety of our team members. We’ve invested hundreds of millions of dollars for team member safety during the pandemic to transform our U.S. facilities with protective measures.
Our company formed a coronavirus task force in January 2020. We were one of the first companies to start taking team member temperatures and we began efforts to secure a supply of face masks before the CDC recommended using them. In fact, we even chartered a plane from Asia to deliver a supply of masks to the U.S. for our team members.
At the heart of our ongoing efforts is our recently launched program to offer all of our team members free and convenient access to the COVID-19 vaccine. We are working closely with state and local health departments for our plant locations across the country, where food processing workers are beginning to be eligible for vaccination. To date, nearly 30,000 team members have been vaccinated.
While we are offering free, on-site vaccinations to every U.S. team member as vaccine supplies become available, we recently announced we will also compensate workers for up to four hours of regular pay if they are vaccinated outside of their normal shift or through an external source. In preparation for vaccinations, Tyson Foods has been providing expert resources and education about the vaccine to team members. This information is available in multiple languages and team members also have access to a hotline to ask questions.
All of the other measures Tyson has taken to transform our U.S. facilities with protective measures remain in place as our vaccination program continues. We’re conducting wellness health screenings of all team members each time they arrive at the facility, checking for symptoms such as coughing or shortness of breath in addition to continuing to check team members’ temperatures. We have purchased more than 150 infrared walkthrough temperature scanners to assist in this effort.
We’re providing and requiring the use of surgical-style face masks, and we’ve implemented social distancing measures, such as physical barriers between workstations and in break rooms, providing more break room space, clearly marking six-foot distances in common use areas and staggering start times to avoid large gatherings as team members enter the facilities.
We also have more than 500 social distance monitors in our facilities to track our social distancing efforts and ensure personal protective equipment is being worn properly.
We’ve added a Chief Medical Officer and more than 200 nurses and administrative staff to help us safeguard and improve the health of our workforce. We’re also using random testing as a tool to find the virus, testing thousands of workers a week, both symptomatic and asymptomatic. This strategy has enabled us to move from defense to offense in our efforts to fight the virus.
We take our responsibility to feed people seriously, and know that by taking care of our team members, our team members will take care of the U.S. food supply chain, from farmers and ranchers to truckers, retailers and restaurants. We will continue to do our best to stay ahead of this challenging and ever-evolving pandemic. If our team members have concerns, we want to hear from them. They have a variety of ways to raise questions without fear of retaliation, including conversations with their immediate supervisor, human resources or via an anonymous help line.”
This former employee of the Smithfield Foods-owned Farmland Foods plant in Milan, Missouri, asked to be anonymous to protect friends and family who still work at the plant. Relationships to family members have also been withheld to protect her identity. There have been at least 14 confirmed cases at the plant but the latest figure is from early in the pandemic. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. The company’s response is included below.
I had worked in different areas of the plant. When there wasn’t a lot for us to do, they’d move us around to different parts of the plant, like the cut floor where they do all the nasty parts of the job. And then towards the end I stayed at my permanent job bagging products for export.
Honestly, when I first started there 7 or 8 years ago, I would say that it was a good company. But things started changing with the pandemic.
I (was a close contact of a) friend who tested positive and I took it upon myself to get tested and quarantine ‘til the results came in. You have 24 hours to call in and say you’re quarantining to get paid. I called and the line kept ringing and ringing and never went to voicemail so I couldn’t leave a message. I finally got through the following day and left a voicemail but I never got a call back. A few days later I got a letter in the mail saying my insurance was going to expire because I was no longer employed. I kept calling Smithfield to see what was going on and no one would answer. When I got through, they told me I had been dropped from Smithfield. They basically said I abandoned my employer. That was about 7 months ago.
I had a meeting with HR to find out what was going on. The guy said he would look into it and call me back in the afternoon but he never did. A few days later I called and asked for the same guy and he said that I had been fired. I was like, is that it? That’s how they do it? If I want to come back I lose all my vacation time and seniority and have to start from zero. I’ve heard of something similar happening to other people too.
When I first started hearing about the virus, I really didn’t think much of it in the beginning. But then people started talking about it and I would hear bad things about how it was very deadly and a lot of people started freaking out.
There’s a lot of people. There’s a lot of people when you go to break, on your lunch time, in the morning when you clock in, clock out. We work shoulder to shoulder on the line. I was learning little by little about the virus and it was scary because I said, “What if it hits here?”
And then when we heard about other companies getting a lot of people with the virus and how people were dying, that’s when we were freaking out a little bit more.
I started seeing people bringing their own masks. They used bandanas and scarves and they were taking it upon themselves to do that. I was a little concerned but not very concerned because to be honest, when I was working there it was like I was living in the fast lane. Get up, get my baby ready for daycare, go to work, go home, go to sleep, wake up and do it again. I was working very long hours because they were making a lot of changes to the schedule and moving shifts around. I wasn’t messing around with news that much.
In the middle of March, Smithfield wasn’t doing very much, they weren’t telling us anything and I think they started getting more serious when the lawsuit came in. [Editor’s note: The lawsuit was filed in late April and alleged the company’s poor treatment of workers could lead to an outbreak.] That’s when they started changing quite a few things.
I’m not going to say they were 100 percent with their employees, but they did change a lot of things. I feel that if the lawsuit wouldn’t have come in, Smithfield wouldn’t have done very much for the employees and there would have been more people with the virus and more deaths.
It started getting worse and I started seeing more and more people wearing masks. At that point it was scary because we didn’t know if that person was sick, or had a cough, or what. Then when the lawsuit hit things started changing. I feel maybe that it was a bit late.
(A relative who works at the plant) got sick. He got a fever and got sent home but they never sent me home or told me he had a fever, even though they knew we lived together. The following weekend I felt sick and had a fever but we both tested negative and went back to work. (Another relative who works at the plant) got sent home from work twice with a fever but I was never quarantined even though she told them I was a close contact.
I was around my friend and her boyfriend and he tested positive. He gave my name to the contact tracers but they never contacted me. Smithfield said they would quarantine everyone who was a close contact but they didn’t. He gave them my contact information and everything but they never called me.
I clocked in before 6 in the morning. They gave us a little bit of time so we can get ready and get our PPE and get to our work area. How long you have to stay at work depends on the situation. Before the pandemic they were doing some remodeling and I had to stay until 7:30 or 7:45 (p.m.) some days. Before I left I was working more than 40 or 50 hours a week, and it would have been more if I wasn’t having to take some days off because of my pain.
When we started hearing about people who tested positive, they were taking the people around them and sending them home for quarantine. There was a certain time in May or June, somewhere around there, that Smithfield didn’t have enough employees so they went down to like 4500 hogs a day. They were like that for 2 or 3 weeks and then they started going back to normal little by little, but with less people. The people that were still working, had to work even faster and sometimes even do multiple jobs, because they didn’t have enough people to do what they needed to get the production back up.
You could go to your supervisor and see if you can go home to get your kids, but they’ll tell you “No, you have to figure something out. You should have thought of this before, you have to find somebody.” And that’s the way it is for a lot of people. During the winter time, parents are worried about the kids because it’s cold and they have to walk home, but (Smithfield) doesn’t help you out. They should, I think.
I would go back because you just get so used to the work. There comes a point in time where you start missing that, the physical stuff that you do. You wake up early, get in a routine, you’re doing things and moving around. That’s what I feel. Staying home with my kids is more work than what I used to do at Smithfield, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.
But at the same time, I don’t want to go back because I have problems with my wrist and I had pain in my shoulder. I think if I had gone to the nurse they probably would have sent me to surgery. Now that I’m home, my shoulder doesn’t hurt anymore, my hand doesn’t hurt anymore. I know a lot of people that work there and they tell me, “my hands hurt,” and I remember when I was like that. I also had pain in my feet, so standing up for so many hours would make it even worse.
I didn’t have any health issues at all before I started working there.
Editor’s note: The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting asked Smithfield representatives specific questions about this employee’s comments, including attendance policies, channels of communication between management and employees, quarantine and contact tracing procedures, the firing of employees while they are quarantined, staffing, reduced production, coronavirus case counts and vaccinations. A company spokesperson declined to answer the questions about the employee’s account and instead provided the following statements, in full:
“We have, from the beginning of the pandemic, followed CDC and OSHA guidance, as well as all other applicable federal, state and local guidance and regulations, including COVID-19 protocols.
Our employee family has taken great pride in remaining healthy and safe while continuing to provide food for so many. From coast to coast, our employees continue to express confidence in our comprehensive response to the novel coronavirus.
We are continuing to work with health experts in a multifaceted response to the virus, including ensuring on-site availability and distribution of safe, effective vaccines.
We are facilitating the distribution of vaccines at our campuses from coast to coast, and this remains an active and ongoing effort at this time. There is very low incidence of the novel coronavirus among our employees, and has been for a sustained period.”
Mostly I remember how naive I was. A year ago, I thought the pandemic would last a month, maybe two.
In the beginning, that innocence filtered into how I viewed my job. When we embarked on trying to record COVID-19 cases and deaths in meatpacking plants, I thought our spreadsheet would show a handful of outbreaks. Maybe 15. At most, 20.
But, as my reporting colleague Kyle Bagenstose at USA TODAY liked to say, “The workers knew.”
They knew what was coming. They knew how bad things could get. They knew, in many instances, enough wasn’t being done fast enough to protect them.
Over the past year, USA TODAY and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting tracked cases and deaths, obtained emails and other documents, and interviewed workers and their family members to understand how COVID-19 has ravaged the meatpacking industry. Our work added to the great reporting on the industry by local and national outlets.
The Midwest Center’s contribution really began when we noticed news reports of workers walking off the job. The plants wouldn’t confirm cases, but the employees knew, telling reporters in interviews and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in complaints they were unsafe.
We don’t cover a particular area or community, so focusing on a single plant or state didn’t make sense for our newsroom. What could we do that would add to the conversation and be a resource?
That’s when we hit upon tracking cases. When we started, only one state was putting COVID-19 cases by workplace online, Colorado (a handful do now). So we had to rely on local news reports that we eventually fleshed out with state data. But, without local reporters, our database wouldn’t exist.
I didn’t think updating it would eat up much time. But it took on a life of its own as my inbox filled with Google alerts of another outbreak. There were days, in between phone calls and records requests for stories, I’d spend all my time transforming story text into data.
A year on, almost 500 outbreaks have occurred in the industry, and more than 50,000 cases have been reported. At least 248 workers have died.
After we first published our tracker, Emily Le Coz, an investigations editor at USA TODAY, invited us to be a part of the organization’s meatpacking and COVID team. The first story we produced, which was published April 22, 2020, was finished in a mad dash.
Then, we started chipping away. We wrote about the federal government allowing plants to speed up their lines. We wrote about why plants were susceptible to outbreaks. We wrote about federal oversight being absent.
When another USA TODAY reporter, Rachel Axon, joined the team, our stories took on a new dimension, and we eventually hit upon a plant in the middle of the country that deserved more attention. With help from USA TODAY’S Kyle Crowe and the Midwest Center’s Frank Hernandez, we called hundreds of workers at Triumph Foods. More than a dozen agreed to speak with us.
Throughout the pandemic, we tried to avoid reporting in person — one of the funnest parts of the gig — as much as possible. Many reporters couldn’t; we were some of the lucky ones. But for this particular story, we decided we needed to have a sense of place, and to knock on more than a few doors.
With a bag full of masks, hand sanitizer and gloves, I drove from our newsroom in Champaign, Illinois, to St. Joseph, Missouri. For the next three days, with the help of an interpreter, I tried to find workers who’d speak with us.
A big tool in interviewing is facial expressions, but I couldn’t tap into it with masks on. But some emotion is clear even through a face covering: When we interviewed the wife of a plant worker outside her apartment, she teared up as she told us about her month alone while her husband was in a COVID-19-induced coma.
A couple months later, as we were about to wrap up reporting, Rachel emailed us: The husband, who had recovered enough to leave the hospital, had died; she’d found his obit. It was a shocking, atypical experience for us. The worker had courageously told us about his battle with COVID-19 from his hospital bed only months earlier.
At that point, in late 2020, my naivety about the virus was gone. But the workers we talked to didn’t have the same luxury. They knew.
First meatpacking plant shuts down
CDC memo from plant visit obtained via FOIA
Meatpacking worker deaths surpass 100
Midwest Center’s meatpacking and COVID-19 database
Database of COVID-19 outbreaks at meatpacking plants
Sky Chadde, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, April, 2020 to present
Some meatpacking workers are staying home over virus fears
Sky Chadde, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, April 2, 2020
Coronavirus at meat packing plants worse than first thought, USA TODAY and Midwest Center investigation finds
Kyle Bagenstose, Sky Chadde and Matt Wynn, USA TODAY, April 22, 2020
USDA inspector dies as coronavirus spreads in meat packing plants.
Kyle Bagenstose, Grace Hauk, USA TODAY and Sky Chadde, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, April 24, 2020
USDA let poultry plants put workers close together even as they got sick from coronavirus.
Sky Chadde, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, and Kyle Bagenstose USA TODAY, April 25, 2020
Lawsuit: Smithfield plant forced workers to crowd together as COVID-19 spread in its other plants
Sky Chadde, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, April 27, 2020
Covid-19 outbreak hits Rantoul meat processing plant
Pam Dempsey, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, May 4, 2020
As slaughter numbers decline, pork prices rise
Johnathan Hettinger, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, May 4, 2020
Trump executive order didn’t stop meat plant closures. Seven more shut in the past week.
Kyle Bagenstose, USA TODAY and Sky Chadde, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting May 5, 2020
Processing plant hit with Covid-19 under scrutiny since March
Pam Dempsey, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, May 5, 2020
Rantoul Foods issues statement in wake of Covid-19 outbreak
Pam Dempsey, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, May 5, 2020
Meatpacking industry hits grim milestone of 10,000 coronavirus cases linked to plants
Sky Chadde, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, May 6, 2020
Covid-19 cases rise at Central Illinois meat packing plant
Pam Dempsey, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, May 7, 2020
Testing accelerated at Rantoul meat processing plant hit by coronovirus outbreak
Pam Dempsey, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, May 8, 2020
Mass testing at meat plant finds 27 more coronavirus cases
Pam Dempsey, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, May 11, 2020
Rantoul Foods Covid-19 cases hold at 83; more reported at Vista Outdoor
Pam Dempsey, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, May 15, 2020
Rantoul Foods resumes hiring; receives donation of face shields
Pam Dempsey, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting May 20, 2020
Cheap chicken, beef came at a cost. How American meat plants bred coronavirus hot spots.
Sky Chadde, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, and Kyle Bagenstose, Veronica Martinez Jacobo and Rachel Axon, USA TODAY, May 22, 2020
Three new coronavirus cases reported at Central Illinois meat processing plant
Pam Dempsey, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, June 4, 2020
Coronavirus outbreaks climb at U.S. meatpacking plants despite protections, Trump order
Rachel Axon, Kyle Bagenstose, USA TODAY, Sky Chadde, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, June 6, 2020
‘All smoke and mirrors’: How Trump’s meatpacking order has failed to keep workers safe
Rachel Axon USA TODAY, Sky Chadde, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, June 18, 2020
Temporary worker at Central Illinois meat processing plant tests positive for Covid-19
Pam Dempsey, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, July 3, 2020
COVID-19 disproportionately affects minority meatpacking workers. These groups say racial discrimination is the reason.
Heather Schlitz, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, July 10, 2020
Graphic: We’ve been tracking meatpacking plant outbreaks. Not all are accounted for.
Sky Chadde, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, August 19, 2020
Arkansas poultry plants are struggling with COVID-19. Hispanic workers are facing the worst of it.
Heather Schlitz, The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, August 31, 2020
GRAPHIC: Design of South Dakota meatpacking plant contributed to high number of COVID-19 cases, CDC says
Pramod Acharya, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, September 16, 2020
Confidential coronavirus outbreak data shows undisclosed incidents at prisons, workplaces, schools, meatpacking plants across Illinois
Georgia Gee, Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism, Columbia Journalism School; Derek Kravitz, Brown Institute for Media Innovation; and Sky Chadde, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, October 7, 2020
Meatpacking workers say attendance policy forces them to work with potential Covid-19 symptoms
Heather Schlitz, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, October 20, 2020
‘They think workers are like dogs.’ How pork plant execs sacrificed safety for profits.
Rachel Axon, Kyle Bagenstose and Kevin Crowe, USA TODAY; Sky Chadde, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, November 11, 2020
Plagued by COVID outbreaks, the meatpacking industry could be forced to change under Biden
Sky Chadde, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting; Rachel Axon and Kyle Bagenstose, USA Today, November 20, 2020
More confidential Illinois outbreak reports show how COVID-19 spread over the summer
Georgia Gee, Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism, Columbia Journalism School; Derek Kravitz, Brown Institute for Media Innovation; and Sky Chadde, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, November 23, 2020
Without federal oversight, some states protect workers from COVID-19, others shield businesses from lawsuits
Frank Hernandez, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, December 16, 2020
GRAPHIC: Poultry plants were already dangerous. Then came COVID-19.
Sky Chadde, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, December 16, 2020
COVID-19 deaths go uninvestigated as OSHA takes a hands-off approach to meatpacking plants
Kyle Bagenstose and Rachel Axon, USA TODAY; Sky Chadde, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, January 12, 2021
The Trump Administration told an Illinois health department to leave Rochelle Foods alone. Then a second COVID-19 outbreak struck the plant.
Derek Kravitz, Brown Institute for Media Innovation; Georgia Gee, Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism, Columbia Journalism School; Madison McVan, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting; and Ignacio Calderon, USA TODAY Network Agriculture Data Fellow, January 18, 2021
GRAPHIC: More meatpacking companies are using temporary visa labor
Sky Chadde, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, February 3, 2021
OSHA and USDA waited months into pandemic to coordinate effort into COVID-19 crisis in meatpacking plants, emails show
Sky Chadde, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, February 5, 2021
Ten months into pandemic, Rochelle Foods and Illinois health department still at odds over COVID-19
Madison McVan, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, and Derek Kravitz, Brown Institute for Media Innovation, February 9, 2021
DOL watchdog: OSHA’s virtual inspections during pandemic likely led to dangerous workplaces
Sky Chadde, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, March 3, 2021
GRAPHIC: Meatpacking workers still complain to OSHA about COVID-19
Sky Chadde, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, March 3, 2021
OSHA faults pork plant for failing to protect workers from COVID-19, but issues no fines
Sky Chadde, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, and Rachel Axon, USA TODAY, March 11, 2021
Reporting: Madison McVan, Ignacio Calderon
Editing: Sky Chadde, Pamela Dempsey
Production: Cynthia Voelkl, Alison Perkins
Special thanks to the USA TODAY reporters and editors who collaborated with us on our year of reporting on COVID-19 in meatpacking plants: Kyle Bagenstose, Rachel Axon, Doug Caruso, Emily Le Coz
No, I'm thinking about the silos that have created a journalistic us vs. them mentality. The last four years of verbal combat in Washington D.C., and to be honest just about everywhere, has exacerbated a toxic atmosphere akin to the Hatfields and McCoys. It is partisanship on super-steroids.
Normally, a workplace death in the United States is met with a swift and thorough response.
By law, employers must report a death within eight hours to the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration. An inspector from OSHA typically arrives within a day to interview workers, review the site of the incident, and determine whether the death resulted from unsafe conditions. For workers in the meatpacking industry during the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the system of swift reporting and next-day inspections that should protect them has broken down.
At least 239 meatpacking workers have died and 45,000 have contracted the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic, according to tracking by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. But companies reported less than half that number of deaths to OSHA, a joint investigation by USA TODAY and the Midwest Center found. Experts say that's in large part because the agency weakened reporting requirements during the pandemic.
Even fewer deaths triggered the kind of robust investigation OSHA typically conducted before the pandemic.
In a normal year we would be debating several worthy agricultural stories as the most important. We certainly would be taking a hard look at the continuing dicamba herbicide saga. 2020 saw the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit de-register dicamba formulations in the middle of the growing season from Bayer AG, Corteva, and BASF because of shoddy regulatory control at the Environmental Protection Agency:
Last month our worst fears were confirmed after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued a pair of COVID-19 safety violation related fines against Big-Meat giants China WH-group owned Smithfield Foods and Brazilian-owned JBS. Mismanagement at Smithfield’s meat packing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota resulted in almost 13-hundred COVID-19 positive tests. Four plant workers died. JBS is equally culpable. At the JBS USA plant in Greeley, Colorado 290 workers tested positive for COVID-19. Six have died.
En abril, a pesar de su fiebre, un trabajador de la industria de las empacadoras de carne continuó extrayendo los huesos del cuello de los cerdos en una planta de la compañía JBS en Iowa.
Dos semanas después, dio positivo a Covid-19. Pero mientras tanto, dijo, siguió marcando su entrada debido a un sistema de asistencia sancionador bastante común en las plantas : el sistema de puntos.
In April, despite his fever, a meatpacking worker continued to carve neck bones out of pig carcasses at a JBS plant in Iowa.
Two weeks later, he would test positive for COVID-19. But in the meantime, he said, he kept clocking in because of a punitive attendance system widely used in meatpacking plants: the point system.