When Covid-19 hits a rural meatpacking plant, county infection rates soar to five times the average

Rural counties that contain meatpacking plants with outbreaks of Covid-19 have infection rates that are five-times higher on average than the rest of rural America. Of the rural counties with the highest infection rates, most contain slaughterhouses where workers have contracted Covid-19. These rural counties also rank among those hardest hit by the disease nationally, a data analysis shows.

The analysis, by the Food & Environment Reporting Network and the Daily Yonder, a newsroom covering rural America, shows that the meatpacking industry is intertwined with the continued spread of Covid-19 in rural areas, with the top counties surpassing infection rates seen even in urban hotspots like New York City.

Rural counties with Covid-19 cases linked to meatpacking plants have an average infection rate of nearly 1,100 per 100,000, according to the analysis of data on Covid-19 cases and deaths. The data used in the analysis was from USA Facts, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, tracking the disease by county. In rural counties without meatpacking plant-linked outbreaks, the average infection rate is only 209 cases per 100,000.

In small-metropolitan counties with meatpacking plants, where Covid-19 cases were reported, the average infection rate is three times greater than similar counties without outbreaks at meatpacking plants.

The analysis used data collected by FERN on outbreaks of Covid-19 among workers at meatpacking plants to identify rural and small-metropolitan counties where those workers are employed. FERN and the Daily Yonder then compared infection rates in those counties to infection rates in rural and small-metropolitan counties that don’t have outbreaks at meatpacking plants.

Ten of the 14 rural counties with the highest infection rates contain meatpacking plants with outbreaks. Of those 10, four of the outbreaks are located at Tyson Foods plants, two at National Beef plants, and one each at a Smithfield, Cargill, Seaboard Foods, and JBS plant. These companies are some of the biggest meat producers in the county. According to an analysis by FERN, Tyson Foods alone accounts for a third of all Covid-19 cases among meatpacking workers nationally.

The infection rates in counties with meatpacking-related Covid-19 cases exceed even those in metropolitan hotspots like New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Nationally, of the 10 counties with the highest infection rates of Covid-19, six have meatpacking plants with outbreaks.

FERN has been tracking the number of meatpacking, food-processing, and farmworkers who have contracted Covid-19 since mid-April. This rural county analysis used data from outbreaks at 110 meatpacking plants, in 102 counties, where nearly 13,000 workers had contracted Covid-19 and at least 55 had died as of May 22.

Most of the counties that are home to meatpacking plants with outbreaks are rural. An additional 21 percent are small metropolitan areas, and 14 percent each are mid-size metropolitan areas and major metropolitan areas.

The map below overlays nearly all of the outbreaks that FERN has tracked at meatpacking plants — 115 plants as of May 26 — with county infection rates. The visualization highlights that meatpacking plants with outbreaks tend to be located in rural hotspots, suggesting a link between outbreaks at meatpacking plants and the spread of the disease in surrounding areas.

This association becomes clearer when zooming in on specific regions. The map below plots six outbreaks in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas: two Tyson Foods beef plants in Holcomb, Kansas, and Amarillo, Texas; two National Beef plants in Dodge City and Liberal, Kansas; a Seaboard Foods pork plant in Guymon, Oklahoma; and a JBS beef plant in Cactus, Texas. The plants’ counties, most of which are rural, have significantly higher infection rates than counties further from the plants.

A similar pattern can be seen in central and eastern Iowa, where there have been seven outbreaks at meatpacking facilities, including at three Tyson Foods pork plants in Waterloo, Perry, and Columbus Junction; a National Beef plant in Tama; a JBS pork plant in Marshalltown; a West Liberty meat plant in West Liberty; and a Prestage Foods pork plant in Eagle Grove. The infection rates in the mostly rural counties with the meatpacking plants exceed rates in the surrounding rural counties.

Another example can be found in Nebraska, where a majority of meatpacking plants with outbreaks are located in rural counties, including a Tyson Foods pork plant in Madison, a Tyson Foods meat plant in Lexington, a Cargill beef plant in Schuyler, a Costco chicken plant in Fremont, a Smithfield pork plant in Crete, and a Western Reserve beef plant in Hastings.

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This article was produced in collaboration with the Daily Yonder. It may not be reproduced without express permission from FERN. If you are interested in republishing or reposting this article, or embedding the tables or charts, please contact info@thefern.org.