The White House's executive order to keep meatpacking facilities open correlates with an increase in infection.

By Mike Pomranz
May 15, 2020
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We had already heard that the meat industry was especially hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic; now, the data would seem to confirm an unhealthy correlation between meat processing plants and coronavirus infections.

Earlier this week, Bloomberg reported that the rate of new coronavirus cases in counties with meatpacking plants was twice the national average the week after President Trump ordered facilities to remain open. Then, yesterday, analysis by The Guardian found that about half of America’s top 25 coronavirus “hotspots”—the counties with the highest rates of infection—were in areas that contain meat plants, including Nebraska’s Dakota County, which reportedly had the second-highest rate of infection in the U.S., about one out of every 14 residents.

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“The pandemic has shone a light on the meat industry where for years workers have been exploited in these plants including being penalized for not showing up even when they are sick or injured,” Tony Corbo, a senior lobbyist at Food & Water Watch, a non-profit advocacy group, told The Guardian. “Even now, it’s taken plants to be shut down for companies to provide protective gear for workers.”

Using data from Johns Hopkins University, Bloomberg found that—during the week starting April 28, the day Trump signed his executive order, until May 5—the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in counties with “major” beef or pork plants increased by 40 percent compared to a national increase of 19 percent. These counties reportedly accounted for 10 percent of new cases during this period despite only containing 7.5 percent of the total U.S. population.

Worth noting, none of this data explicitly states where infected residents work, so though the correlation is clear, the causation is only implied. And Sarah Little, a spokeswoman for the North American Meat Institute, told Bloomberg that the higher rates were due to higher testing. “There is no other industry or community that is monitoring their people as diligently as we are, except maybe healthcare,” she was quoted as saying. (However, since we’re looking at rates, not total cases, increased testing shouldn’t necessarily make a difference.)

Still, if the meatpacking industry has nothing to hide, they’ve done a poor job of proving it in Nebraska. This week, The Washington Post reported that state officials had stopped reporting the number of infected workers at individual plants.