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13 U.S. meat industry workers have died of COVID-19, union says

Food supply fears rise as processing plants close
Food supply fears rise as virus forces processing plants to close 02:11

The union that represents 250,000 meatpacking and poultry plant workers is calling for improved protections for those on the front lines of sustaining the nation's food supply as the coronavirus spreads. 

Ten meatpacking workers and three food processing workers have died of COVID-19, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). In addition, at least 5,000 meatpacking workers and 1,500 food processing workers have been directly impacted by the virus, from testing positive for the disease it causes to missing work due to self-quarantine while they await test results, the labor group said. 

The union's tally of fatalities is lower than one compiled by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. The center found that as of April 23 there have been at least 3,400 reported positive cases tied to meatpacking facilities at 62 plants in 23 states and at least 17 reported worker deaths at eight plants in eight states.

"Since the beginning, food and meatpacking workers have been working at the front lines of this public health crisis," UFCW President Marc Perrone said in a virtual press conference on Thursday. "While companies are taking steps to protect workers, we're not seeing the scope we need to protect these workers going forward."

"It's shoulder to shoulder at my workplace"

The UFCW is calling on the White House Coronavirus Task Force to prioritize five safety measures for the meatpacking industry: increased worker testing; priority access to personal protection equipment; no longer giving processors waivers to bypass workplace rules on how quickly production lines are set; mandating social distancing; and isolating workers with COVID-19 symptoms or those who have tested positive.

"It was shoulder to shoulder at my workplace," said Achut Deng, a worker the past six years at a Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, who tested positive for COVID-19 in early April. Deng was diagnosed with the coronavirus disease several days after being sent home from work. 

World's largest pork producer closes three U.S. plants 10:43

On Thursday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called on Smithfield to make substantial changes at its Sioux Falls plant, which is linked to hundreds of local COVID-19 cases and at least two deaths.

Other meat companies around the U.S. are also contending with infected workers. 

  • In addition to having to close its slaughter operations in Sioux Falls, Smithfield has also shuttered a plant in Martin City, Missouri, and in Cudahy, Wisconsin. The company — a wholly owned subsidiary of China's WH Group — on Friday said it would suspend operations starting next week and until further notice at its meat-processing plant in Monmouth, Illinois, after a "small portion of its 1,700 employees tested positive for COVID-19." The facility produces about 3% of U.S. fresh pork supplies, and also makes bacon.
  • Tyson Foods on Wednesday shut down its large pork processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa, after multiple employees tested positive for the virus. It's also shuttering a poultry processing plant in Temperanceville, Virginia, for cleaning during the weekend. Tennessee officials this week reportedly said 120 workers from a Tyson plant in Goodlettsville tested positive for COVID-19. Approximately 1,600 people work at the plant. 
  • JBS USA, a subsidiary of JBS SA, the world's largest meat producer, closed its Greeley, Colorado, facility. 
  • A Hormel Foods plant in Rochelle, Illinois, was shut Monday by the Ogle County Health Department after cases among employees doubled to 30 within a week. The county tested more than 600 workers on Thursday, and plans to test the remaining 200 to 300 people on Friday. Hormel agreed to continue paying and covering health benefits for the as many as 900 employees furloughed by the closure.
  • Separately, Hormel on Friday said it would pause operations at two Jennie-O Turkey Store facilities in Willmar, Minnesota, after 14 employees tested positive for COVID-19. Operations will wind down throughout the weekend for plant-wide cleanings at the facilities where more than 1,200 work.

No large food company in the U.S. meat industry is immune to the challenges. "Last week Cargill began giving us masks at work," said Itzel Goytia, employed at the agribusiness giant's meatpacking plant in Dodge City, Kansas. "Social distancing is hard, if not impossible, in some areas of the plant, with hundreds of workers in and out every day."

All told, 13 plants have closed at some point in the last two months, affecting roughly 25,000 workers. That has reduced the nation's pork slaughter capacity by 25% and beef slaughter capacity 10%, the UFCW estimated. 

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