As more meatpacking workers fall ill from Covid-19, meat companies decline to disclose data

As Covid-19 has swept through meatpacking facilities, it has been hard to figure out exactly how many workers have gotten sick or died of the virus. Some companies have shared numbers on positive cases, but most of the largest meatpackers have kept that data private. Critics say that the lack of disclosure puts public health at risk, especially as nearly all idled meat plants reopen.

JBS, Tyson Foods, and Smithfield, whose employees make up more than half of positive Covid-19 cases among meatpacking workers, have shared little information over the course of the pandemic about the scope of the outbreaks at their plants. In some cases, the packers have confirmed data about specific outbreaks to local news outlets. But the companies have not shared national or cumulative data.

Workers at some packing plants report that they are unaware of how many of their colleagues have been sickened by the virus. Magaly Licolli, the cofounder of Venceremos, a poultry worker advocacy group in Arkansas, says that the region’s poultry workers, including many who work for Tyson, are not receiving adequate information about active outbreaks at their workplaces.

“Really, the company is suppressing that information from workers,” Licolli says. “Workers don’t know how many people are really sick.”

Asked about its data procedures, Tyson pointed to press releases this week that confirmed, for the first time, outbreak figures at its plants in Madison, Nebraska, and Portland, Maine. The company said it “will share verified test results with health and government officials, team members, and other stakeholders as they become available.”

Other meatpackers say that sharing case information is a privacy concern. Smithfield says it is choosing not to confirm Covid-19 cases “out of respect for Smithfield employees’ legal privacy.” JBS did not respond to a request for comment, but a spokesman has told other news outlets that the company is not releasing case data “out of respect for the families.”

This privacy argument doesn’t sit well with Licolli, who says that workers see no privacy issue with disclosing the cumulative number of cases.

“During the pandemic, [it is] their duty to inform,” she says of the meatpackers. “We are not saying, ‘Give us the names’ [of sick workers].” She says workers primarily want to know how many of their colleagues are sick and which part of the facility they work in, so they can gauge their own risk of infection.

“This information could really save a lot of lives,” Licolli says.

FERN’s ongoing analysis of Covid-19 cases in the food system has found that more than 14,200 meatpacking plant workers have tested positive for the virus since mid-April. That figure, derived primarily from local news reports and state officials, is likely an undercount given the lack of data available from meatpackers.

Still, not all meatpackers are closely guarding Covid-19 outbreak information. West Liberty Foods, an Iowa-based meat processor with five facilities, has tweeted the number of positive Covid-19 cases at each of its plants nearly every day since April 24. The company’s vice president and general counsel, Dan Waters, says releasing case numbers is important for informing workers and the broader community of their possible risk of exposure to the virus.

“A good-size percentage of the population of West Liberty works at our plants,” he says. “What happens at West Liberty Foods has a big impact on the city.”

And Waters doesn’t think releasing case numbers constitutes a violation of privacy.

“Just sharing the number of positive cases doesn’t identify particular individuals who are ill, so I don’t really consider that to be a privacy issue,” he says. “I prefer to share the facts rather than have people not know what’s going on or assume things are even worse than they actually are.”

Even in the case of major outbreaks, most meatpackers have not made information about cases and deaths publicly available. Cargill has not issued any press releases about Covid-19 among its workforce, despite ongoing outbreaks at five of its facilities, including one in Schuyler, Nebraska, that has sickened 241 workers. The Schuyler plant is currently the only idled meatpacking plant in the country.

National Beef has also not released any cumulative case information or confirmed specific outbreak figures to local news outlets, despite positive cases at two of its plants in Kansas and an outbreak at a plant in Iowa that has sickened hundreds of workers.

As the crisis continues, some meatpackers are rolling out enhanced employee testing, which could lead to the release of more and better data. But testing isn’t always universal or comprehensive. When a Smithfield plant reopened in South Dakota, for instance, employee testing was optional. A recent news report in Minnesota found that testing among the state’s meatpackers was “patchwork,” with public money used for testing in some cases.

Federal officials have provided little direction on testing at the plants. An April interim guidance for meatpacking facilities from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration said only that packers should “consider the appropriate role for testing … in a worksite risk assessment.”

Licolli says that the only way to enable meatpacking workers to safely do their jobs is to test everyone at a plant and provide paid time off to those required to quarantine at home.

“They really need to shut down all the facilities” for testing, she says. “Probably we’ll have a decrease in production, but that’s the only way that we can overcome this.”