But Tyson’s new COVID monitoring strategy is receiving praise as America’s largest meatpacking union uses the USDA over working conditions.

By Mike Pomranz
July 31, 2020
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A photo of an Arkansas Tyson plant taken in 2002.
Gregory Smith / Contributor/Getty Images

From early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, evidence seemed to show that the meatpacking industry was especially vulnerable to coronavirus outbreaks. By May, the White House passed an order attempting to keep meat processing facilities open at a time when reports found that counties with meatpacking plants were some of America’s worst hotspots, posting rates of new cases double the national average. As a result, meat prices increased and some large retailers placed limits on how much beef, pork, and poultry people could buy.

Now, new data from the Food & Environment Reporting Network (FERN)—a non-profit news organization—further illustrates the extent of the problem while, this same week, the USDA has been sued by America’s largest meatpacking union over unsafe working conditions and multiple members of Congress have introduced bills to further address the situation.

According to FERN, as of July 30, 38,403 meatpacking workers have tested positive for COVID-19 and at least 171 of those workers have died. Even more eye-opening is the extent to which those numbers stem from one company: Tyson Foods. FERN calculates that Tyson has had 10,104 cases—over a quarter of all cases in the sector. Tyson Foods’ entire U.S. workforce is, by its own account, only 120,000 people, meaning nearly one-in-ten have contracted the virus.

Granted, FERN’s numbers aren't a complete picture. The site explains its data “is primarily collected from local news reports, with additional information gathered from state health authorities and, on occasion, from companies with outbreaks.” So it’s possible Tyson’s cases have simply been better disclosed—both by the media and the company itself. Just yesterday, Tyson announced plans to launch a “new, nationwide COVID monitoring strategy.” In the announcement, Tyson wrote the company “has likely been involved in more testing than any other company in the country [having] tested nearly a third of its workforce.” Additionally, a company spokesperson told me, “Tyson has also been one of the few companies to publicly disclose the results of facility-wide tests.”

Tyson also states, “Currently, less than one percent” of its U.S. workforce “has active COVID-19.” “We believe launching a new, strategic approach to monitoring and adding the health staff to support it will help further our efforts to go on the offensive against the virus,” Donnie King, Tyson Foods group president and chief administrative officer, said in the announcement.

However, the timing of this announcement—Tyson’s first public news release about COVID-19 in about two months—may not be a coincidence. Just two days earlier, on Tuesday, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW)—America’s largest meatpacking union representing over a quarter-million food workers—went on the offensive, suing the USDA over waivers that allowed poultry plants to increase production line speeds. As UFCW explains, maximum line speeds were set in 2014, though waivers to these speeds can be issued. Furthermore, the UFCW states that 15 waivers were approved in April of this year alone at a time when COVID-19 was already beginning to spread.

“As COVID-19 continues to infect thousands of meatpacking workers, it is stunning that USDA is further endangering these workers by allowing poultry companies to increase line speeds to dangerous new levels that increase the risk of injury and make social distancing next to impossible,” UFCW International President Marc Perrone said in announcing the legal action. “This lawsuit will help to finally stop this dangerous corporate giveaway from the USDA. Now more than ever, we must put the safety of frontline workers and our country’s food supply first.”

Nandan Joshi, the Public Citizen attorney serving as lead counsel, added, “The law is clear that an agency must follow proper procedures when adopting a new program and must consider and address all relevant factors, including its own prior positions on the same issue… FSIS did not follow these basic rules when it decided to allow more poultry plants to exceed the agency’s own regulatory line speed limits.”

Some members of Congress would seem to agree. Also on Tuesday, Senator Cory Booker introduced the Safe Line Speeds in COVID-19 Act, with companion legislation being introduced in the House by Representatives Marcia L. Fudge of Ohio, Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, and Bennie Thompson of Mississippi. Among other provisions, the new legislation seeks to suspend all current and future line speed waivers—which Booker’s office pegged at 20—during the pandemic.

“Since mid-March, outbreaks of COVID-19 have continued to surge in meatpacking plants across the country, infecting tens of thousands of workers and tragically killing more than 168. The majority of these workers are from immigrant communities and communities of color,” Booker said in his announcement. “The USDA should be in the business of prioritizing worker and consumer safety over the profits of large multinational meatpacking corporations, not the other way around.”

But getting back to UFCW, the union’s primary beef appears to be with the U.S. government more than Tyson. In fact, regarding Tyson’s uptick in testing and medical protocols, UFCW actually contributed praise to the company’s news release. “We welcome this important step by Tyson Foods, which demonstrates the leadership needed to strengthen COVID monitoring across the industry,” Perrone was quoted as saying. “UFCW is urging all companies in the industry to follow Tyson's lead and take immediate action to expand COVID monitoring as we work to flatten the curve.”