Charting the spread of Covid-19 in the food system

Food industry workers have experienced some of the fastest-growing rates of Covid-19, which FERN has been closely tracking in the food system since mid-April. The charts below draw out some trends from that data, including the states with the most severe outbreaks, which companies have the highest number of cases, and what types of plants have experienced the largest outbreaks.

Since FERN began gathering data, there has been a steady rise in the number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 among workers at meatpacking plants, food-processing facilities, and on farms. When we first published our map on April 22, there were 1,950 cases among these workers. The cumulative total on May 19 was over 16,400 — a more than eight-fold increase in less than a month. In that time, 66 workers have died of the disease.

As the number of cases has ticked up, the number of outbreaks has also grown. On April 22, we found cases at 40 meatpacking and food-processing facilities. On May 19, the cumulative total number of outbreaks at these facilities was 215. Workers continue to report that they have inadequate access to personal protective gear, sick leave, and hazard pay.

Covid-19 has been slower to reach farms and production facilities, like greenhouses. But the number of outbreaks is rising in that sector, too. We first mapped an outbreak at a farm — 27 cases at Herbruck’s Poultry Ranch in Saranac, Michigan — on May 5. As of May 19, we have counted Covid-19 outbreaks at 14 farms.

Throughout April, as the number of Covid-19 outbreaks in meatpacking plants rose, several plants were partially idled or closed entirely in an attempt to slow the spread of the disease among workers. The peak of these closures, according to FERN’s data, occurred on May 1, when 20 meatpacking plants were shuttered across the country. That week, experts estimated that hog processing had fallen 40 percent.

On April 26, the chairman of Tyson Foods, John Tyson, took out a full-page ad in several newspapers in which he warned about the vulnerability of the food supply, saying that the continued closure of plants would lead to shortages of the company’s products. He called on the government to take action, and two days later President Trump signed an executive order to keep meatpacking plants open. As of May 19, nearly all of the once-closed meatpacking plants have started back up.

Some types of meatpacking plants have had more cases of Covid-19 than others. Pork plants account for nearly twice as many cases — nearly 6,000 — as any other type of meatpacking facility.

Just a few companies dominate the meatpacking sector. Tyson, JBS, Smithfield, and Cargill process 85 percent of all of the country’s beef; Tyson, JBS, and Smithfield handle over 60 percent of the nation’s pork. Those packers, as well as other major producers like National Beef and Perdue, have seen substantially more outbreaks at their facilities than their smaller competitors. Three companies — Tyson, JBS, and Smithfield — account for over 45 percent of all the meatpacking plants we have mapped with Covid-19 outbreaks.

The meatpacker with the highest number of employees sickened by Covid-19 is, by far, Tyson Foods, with nearly 5,000 cases at its plants. That’s a third of the nation’s total number of cases at meatpacking plants. Tyson’s Waterloo, Iowa, pork plant has reported 1,031 cases, the highest of any facility in the country. Tyson, JBS, and Smithfield together account for 53 percent of all cases of Covid-19 among meatpacking plant workers.

In most instances, these companies have not disclosed data about the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths among their workers. JBS and Smithfield have said they are not releasing the data to protect worker privacy. But workers, advocates, and at least one smaller meatpacker have argued that it is the companies’ responsibility to inform the public about outbreaks at their plants.

FERN has plotted outbreaks at meatpacking facilities in 28 states, with North Carolina, Georgia, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Illinois seeing the highest numbers. (Some states not represented on these charts, like Oregon, Maine, and Rhode Island, have had outbreaks at food-processing facilities. Other states, like Maryland, have released the total number of sickened meatpacking workers but not the names or locations of the affected facilities.)

Iowa, Nebraska, and North Carolina also account for the highest numbers of meatpacking workers who have contracted Covid-19. The three states total over 5,300 cases, or more than 36 percent of the food industry workers who have contracted the disease nationally.

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