House committee to investigate meatpacking plant outbreaks

The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis launched an investigation Monday into the spread of Covid-19 at meatpacking plants during the course of the pandemic. The committee sent letters to the country’s top meatpackers — JBS, Smithfield Foods and Tyson Foods — as well as to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), requesting scores of information on the entities’ management of the spread of the virus among meatpacking workers, with a response deadline of Feb. 15.

“Public reports indicate that meatpacking companies … have refused to take basic precautions to protect their workers, many of whom earn extremely low wages and lack adequate paid leave, and have shown a callous disregard for workers’ health,” subcommittee chairman Rep. James Clyburn wrote to meatpackers. “These actions appear to have resulted in thousands of meatpacking workers getting infected with the virus and hundreds dying.”

To OSHA’s deputy assistant secretary of labor, James Frederick, Clyburn wrote that, under former President Trump, the agency “failed to adequately carry out its responsibility for enforcing worker safety laws at meatpacking plants across the country, resulting in preventable infections and deaths. It is imperative that the previous Administration’s shortcomings are swiftly identified and rectified to save lives in the months before coronavirus vaccinations are available for all Americans.”

Over 56,000 meatpacking workers have contracted Covid-19 since the pandemic began, and at least 277 have died, according to FERN’s tracker, which was cited by the subcommittee. FERN has counted 569 outbreaks at meatpacking plants. Those numbers are almost certainly undercounts, given poor data reporting by states and a lack of transparency from meatpackers. OSHA has been criticized for months for failing to follow up on worker complaints about Covid-19 exposure at meat plants, and for issuing minimal fines to meatpackers after workers got sick or died from the virus.

In his letters, Clyburn requested that meatpackers send extensive data related to the pandemic, including records of worker complaints, facility inspections, worker illness and death from Covid-19, and payments made to workers for absences related to Covid-19. He also sought explanations for any facility closures that occurred during the pandemic. From OSHA, Clyburn requested records of meatpacking plant complaints sent to the agency and details on any resulting inspections, enforcement actions and fines.

Last July, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker attempted to retrieve similar data from meatpacking companies, but the companies largely evaded questions about worker illness and meat exports. This time, they may not have a choice. If the companies and OSHA fail to present the requested materials, the chair of the subcommittee has the power to subpoena documents.

Nikki Richardson, director of communications for JBS, says that the company “welcome[s] the opportunity to provide members of the Select Subcommittee information regarding our response to the global pandemic and our efforts to protect our workforce.”

Keira Lombardo, chief administrative officer for Smithfield, says the pork producer has “taken seriously our responsibility to protect the health and safety of employees while continuing to provide food for our nation … It is unfortunate that there are inaccuracies and misinformation in the media on this issue and we look forward to providing the Subcommittee with correct information.”

The North American Meat Institute, the leading meat industry lobby group, said in a statement that the industry has spent more than $1.5 billion on “comprehensive protections” at meatpacking plants. “The meat and poultry industry is focused on continuing these effective protections, reaffirmed by the Biden Administration, and ensuring frontline meat and poultry workers are vaccinated as soon as possible,” said Sarah Little, the group’s vice president for communications.

Tyson Foods did not respond to a request for comment.

OSHA, which recently updated its guidance for employers on managing Covid-19, “is committed to working with the Committee on our joint commitment to protecting workers,” said a department spokesperson.

The House subcommittee was established last April to examine pandemic-related government relief programs, reports of fraud, economic impact and response. Its members include six Democrats and five Republicans.

Read the subcommittee’s letters to Tyson, JBS, Smithfield and OSHA here.