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SPECIAL REPORT: Regulation gaps and missed opportunities allowed COVID-19 to spread freely in U.S. meatpacking plants

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The COVID-19 pandemic blindsided the meatpacking industry, but public health researchers and advocates say the risk posed to workers and food supply chains by airborne viral infections was readily apparent and could have been addressed years ago. South Dakota News Watch Reporter Nick Lowrey has the story.

  • This 2017 photo from the USDA shows line workers handling pork at the Triumph Foods processing plant in St. Joseph, Mo. Photo: Courtesy USDA
    This 2017 photo from the USDA shows line workers handling pork at the Triumph Foods processing plant in St. Joseph, Mo. Photo: Courtesy USDA

Bart Pfankuch and Nick Lowrey / South Dakota News Watch

The COVID-19 pandemic has overwhelmed the U.S. meatpacking industry, but public health experts say the risks posed to workers and the U.S. food supply chain by airborne viral infections were readily apparent and could have been addressed years ago.

Ongoing virus outbreaks could have been avoided, and future illnesses eliminated, if major meatpacking plants had implemented disease-control measures recommended by the U.S. Centers For Disease Control and Prevention long before COVID-19 was first identified. The plants only began implementing such measures after workers started to get sick and die from the disease.

Now, as workers at shuttered plants are likely to return to work soon under a presidential order, federal regulators continue to suggest rather than require companies to implement basic safety measures, such as separating workers by six feet or more, promoting hand washing, issuing face masks and telling sick workers to go home.

One of the biggest COVID-19 outbreaks in the U.S. occurred at the Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in Sioux Falls. The plant was the nation’s largest COVID-19 hotspot for nearly a week in April. So far, nearly one-fourth of its workforce — more than 850 people — has tested positive for the virus that causes the deadly disease.

On April 29, state officials in Minnesota announced that about 500 workers at the JBS meatpacking plant in Worthington were positive for COVID-19; that plant shut down on April 20. 

Federal regulators, though, have been reluctant to force meatpackers to address the threat of airborne infections through regulation, even in light of COVID-19, and plant operators have not willingly implemented safety and reporting measures, some of which had been recommended for more than a decade.

On April 28, the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration issued a “statement of enforcement policy,” saying it was vitally important that meatpackers implement guidance on how to handle COVID-19, issued jointly by OSHA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The statement said OSHA would use “enforcement discretion” for employers adhering to OSHA/CDC guidance on COVID-19 and would take into account good faith attempts to follow the guidelines in the event of an investigation. The policy statement also said not implementing OSHA/CDC guidance could be used against an employer in the event of a lawsuit.

Still, in relying on suggestions rather than regulations, the agency has failed in its core mission to protect workers, said Debbie Berkowitz, an expert on the meatpacking industry who now serves as worker health and safety director for the National Employment Law Project in Washington, D.C.

OSHA has increasingly taken a hands-off approach to the meatpacking industry and has not enforced the COVID-19 guidelines set first in March and then again in April by the CDC, said Berkowitz, who has also worked as the health and safety director for the national AFL-CIO. The failure by OSHA to require rather than suggest safety measures for workers in the American meatpacking industry has created a situation where an illness such as COVID-19 can easily spread within the plants and to the public beyond, she said.

“OSHA has completely abdicated its responsibility to protect meatpackers,” said Berkowitz, who spent six years as chief of staff and a senior policy adviser for OSHA in the early 2010s and who once toured the Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls.

Experts say meatpackers and other industries missed an opportunity to learn from the H1N1, or swine flu, pandemic that struck in 2009, failing to implement safety suggestions made at that time to prevent the spread of future airborne illnesses in workplaces.

Read this full story at sdnewswatch.org.