House panel asks meatpackers how many Covid-19 infections and deaths they had at their plants

The toll the coronavirus has taken on the meatpacking industry may be greater than currently thought, said a House panel on Wednesday in asking Cargill and National Beef, two of the largest U.S. meat processors, to disclose how many of their workers had contracted Covid-19 and how many had died. South Carolina’s James Clyburn, chair of the panel, the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, said one study suggested that the infection rate for National Beef was three to five times higher than for other large processors.

In letters to the companies, Clyburn contrasted high meat prices in the grocery store and large meatpacker profits with reports that packers had failed to provide adequate protection to their employees against the coronavirus. Some of the largest slaughterhouses slowed or temporarily stopped production during Covid-19 outbreaks in spring 2020.

More than 59,000 meatpacking workers have tested positive for Covid-19 and at least 298 of them have died since the pandemic began in early 2020, according to data compiled by the Food and Environment Reporting Network. FERN’s Covid-19 Mapping Project was shuttered on Sept. 2 because of the increasing difficulty in gathering information about illnesses. Most meat companies never released information about Covid-19 in their workforces, public sources of that information withered over time, and there is no federal count.

“We are concerned the scale of coronavirus infection in American meat processing plants may have been greater than previously believed,” Clyburn, the No. 3 House Democrat, said in the letters. “These concerns are reinforced by both our initial investigation and press reports alleging that meatpacking companies failed to take adequate precautions to protect their workers’ health during the pandemic — endangering workers, their communities, and the nation’s food supply.”

Clyburn pointed to FERN’s tally that at least 1,394 Cargill workers and 1,435 National Beef workers have been infected to date. In one instance, a large outbreak at a Cargill plant “was tied to community spread, including into a nearby retirement community,” he said. In a 2020 study, researchers “found that plants run by National Beef had a coronavirus case rate three to five times higher than plants run by other large companies,” he said in the letter to the Kansas City-based meatpacker.

Besides data on worker illnesses and vaccinations, Cargill was asked for “all communications” with the Trump administration over the drafting of an executive order by President Trump, on April 28, 2020, “to ensure that meat and poultry processors continue operations” during the pandemic.

Cargill and National Beef officials were not immediately available for comment.

The letters to Cargill and National Beef were an expansion of an investigation by the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis that began in February with letters to JBS USA, Tyson Foods, and Smithfield Foods, three of the nation’s largest meat processors. Like the letters to Cargill and National Beef, those letters asked the companies how many of their employees had fallen ill or died of Covid-19 and what safeguards they had put in place to protect them. In addition, the subcommittee asked OSHA what it had done to protect workers.

“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,” wrote Clyburn in the February letters.

The subcommittee was created in April 2020 to monitor the federal response to the pandemic. At the end of the year, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the panel would continue its work through 2022. The subcommittee says that its investigations have identified more than $4 billion in potential fraud in small business programs, leading to the return of more than $100 million to the Treasury.