Covid-19 shows no sign of slowing among food-system workers

The nation is in various stages of reopening as the number of new Covid-19 cases falls in some regions. Yet among the vulnerable workers who produce our food, the pandemic is still raging. A new analysis of data collected by FERN since mid-April shows that the virus is spreading steadily among workers in meatpacking and food processing plants and at farms, and many states are experiencing outbreaks in multiple food and farm sectors.

Since April 22, FERN has counted over 32,000 Covid-19 cases and 109 deaths among food-system workers. The true count is likely much higher, as data irregularities, including the industry’s reticence to share data about worker illness and the inconsistent availability of state figures, make it impossible to know exactly how many workers have contracted the virus. But the trend line below illustrates that there has not been a flattening in the number of new reported Covid-19 cases in the sector at any point since the pandemic began.

The ongoing spread of Covid-19 among food-sector workers has contributed to rising infection rates in many rural communities, even as major metropolitan areas see the virus’ spread abating. Analysis by FERN and Daily Yonder found that, in rural communities with meatpacking plants that have had Covid-19 outbreaks, the infection rate is five times higher on average than in other rural counties.

Cases are rising across all three of the major food industry sectors that FERN is tracking: meatpacking, food processing, and farms. Since April 22, FERN has counted a cumulative total of 27,138 cases among meatpacking workers, 2,190 among food-processing workers, and 2,771 among farmworkers. These are the most comprehensive figures available, though even these tallies do not account for some known hot spots — like Immokalee, Florida, where the virus is spreading among farmworkers but specific case counts are not available.

Workers in the food sector are disproportionately low-income, people of color, and immigrants. In the meatpacking industry, nearly three quarters of workers are Hispanic or Black, and nearly half are immigrants, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

The meatpacking industry has had the highest number of reported Covid-19 outbreaks. According to FERN’s analysis, 249 plants have been affected — 65 percent of the total recorded food sector outbreaks — compared to 84 food-processing facilities and 46 farms.

Some states are seeing higher numbers of cases among food-system workers than others. Washington State, where Covid-19 has spread rapidly in the large orchards that make up the state’s fruit industry, is leading in farmworker cases.

Colorado, which is releasing detailed data each week on Covid-19 outbreaks, is leading in the number of cases in the food-processing sector.

Nebraska has had the highest number of meatpacking worker cases — nearly 4,000.

Overall, North Carolina, Colorado, and Washington State have the highest numbers of outbreaks among food-sector workers. North Carolina was also the No. 1 state for overall food sector outbreaks in FERN’s May 19 analysis of the spread of Covid-19 in the food system.

Many states have had Covid-19 outbreaks in multiple food sectors, and seven — California, Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, Texas, and Washington — have had outbreaks at meatpacking plants, food-processing facilities, and on farms.

In the meat sector, Tyson Foods has had by far the highest number of cases of any other major meatpacker — 8,007 cases at 37 plants. The company, which is the nation’s largest meatpacker, has nearly three times as many cases as the second-highest meatpacker, JBS. Tyson was also the meatpacker with the highest number of cases in FERN’s May 19 analysis, though at that time it had only around 2.4 times as many cases as JBS. The company has also had outbreaks at three of its food-processing facilities, including a dog treat plant.

Pork plants are responsible for the highest percentage of meatpacking worker cases, with more than 8,200 cases comprising about 30 percent of all meatpacking sector cases. About 5,600 cases at beef plants make up about 20 percent of the total, and around 3,000 cases at chicken plants make up around 11 percent.

Lead image: Workers wait in line to enter the Tyson Foods pork processing plant in Logansport, Indiana, in early May. The plant had closed on April 25 after nearly 900 employees tested positive for the coronavirus. AP Photo/Michael Conroy.

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