- Meat processing plants are the centre of many current coronavirus hotspots in the US.
- Of the largest 10 clusters in the US – excluding correctional facilities – seven are linked to meatpacking plants.
- In South Dakota, an outbreak tied to a Smithfield meat processing plant has been linked to more than 1,000 cases, more than a third of the 2,631 confirmed cases in the state.
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A new wave of coronavirus hotspots is centered around meatpacking plants, creating a dangerous environment for workers and a major problem for the meat supply chain in the US.
Pantheon Macroeconomics’s Ian Shepherdson said last week that the meat industry is the source of many of the largest new COVID-19 hotspots in the US. Shepherdson, the chief economist at the economic research firm, said that rampant outbreaks tied to meatpacking plants are in contrast with general improvement elsewhere in the US.
Bill Marler, an attorney focused on food poisoning, told Business Insider that meat processing plants are becoming the “next hotspots for COVID-19.”
Looking at the 20 largest clusters of COVID-19 cases across America, as identified by The New York Times, meatpacking plants make up four of the 20 largest clusters in the US, second only to jails and correctional facilities, which account for 14 of the largest clusters.
Of the 10 largest clusters excluding correctional facilities, seven are meatpacking plants; the remaining three are the USS Theodore Roosevelt, Paramus Veterans Memorial Home in New Jersey, and Trenton Psychiatric Hospital, also in New Jersey.
CDC staff is currently deployed in seven states to assist in high-risk settings linked to the food industry, according to internal CDC data obtained by The New York Times. Multiple counties with outbreaks tied to meat processing plants have more cases per capita than New York City, including Dakota County in Nebraska, Nobles County in Minnesota, and Cass County in Indiana.
In some states, cases linked to meatpacking plants make up a significant portion of all coronavirus cases. In South Dakota, for example, there have been 2,631 confirmed cases as of Sunday. More than 2,100 of these cases are in Minnehaha County, home to the Smithfield plant that represents the largest cluster of cases among all the meat processing plants in the country.
The Smithfield plant has been linked to more than 1,000 cases among workers and their families – more than a third of all cases in the state. The Associated Press reports that the plant is reopening on Monday. Smithfield did not respond to Business Insider’s request for comment.
More than 4,900 workers have caught the coronavirus
115 meat and poultry processing plants in 19 states have reported COVID-19 cases, according to a report from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention released on Friday. Among the roughly 130,000 workers at these facilities, there have been 4,913 confirmed cases and 20 deaths.
Meat processing workers face distinctive risks, according to the CDC, with long shifts that often force them into close contact with others.
According to Marler, these risks should have been obvious from the beginning of the outbreak. But coronavirus clusters in meat-processing plants have disproportionately impacted immigrant communities, as more than half of frontline workers in the industry are immigrants, according to the Centre for Economic and Policy Research.People of colour also make up the majority of the meatpacking workforce – 44% of meatpackers are Latino and 25% are black.
Marler thinks this has everything to do with how the government has responded to the crisis. “If that was a grade school full of white kids, we’d all be freaking out,” he said. Instead, President Trump signed an executive order demanding that meat processing plants stay open to protect the nation’s food supply chain. Executives at meat industry giants like Tyson and Smithfield said closures due to the coronavirus could cause the meat supply chain in the US to break down. Grocers including Kroger and Costco have placed limits on how much customers can order, citing shortages, and McDonald’s recently changed how restaurants order pork and beef due to supply chain concerns.
“As pork, beef and chicken plants are being forced to close, even for short periods of time, millions of pounds of meat will disappear from the supply chain,” Tyson chairman John Tyson said in an open letter last week.“As a result, there will be limited supply of our products available in grocery stores until we are able to reopen our facilities that are currently closed.”