About 9% of workers at meat and poultry processing facilities across 14 states have been diagnosed with Covid-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Meatpacking plants, which were under pressure to produce enough food for U.S. consumers, became early hot spots for the coronavirus pandemic. In April and May, the country's largest meat producers, such as Tyson Foods and Cargill, were forced to close some facilities due to outbreaks. Total production of federally inspected red meat and poultry fell 8% in April and 13% in May, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Lags in production led many farmers to slaughter their livestock themselves. President Donald Trump signed an executive order in late April under the Defense Production Act to compel meatpacking plants to stay open.
The CDC's report compiles responses from 28 state health departments, five of whom did not report any confirmed cases tied to meat processing workers. As of May 31, 86 worker deaths across 23 states can be tied to Covid-19. Nearly 240 meat processing facilities had at least one confirmed case among the workers, and more than 16,200 workers across 23 states have tested positive for the virus.
The conditions of the meatpacking industry, which requires many workers to be in close contact with each other for long shifts, make social distancing nearly impossible. The CDC also noted in its report that shared transportation to and from work and congregate housing also increase workers' risk for exposure to the virus.
Some meat producers have tried to step up protections for their workers, but others fell short. In the CDC's survey, only 86 facilities out of the 111 plants with information available on their prevention efforts required all workers to wear face coverings. Sixty-nine plants out of the 111 facilities installed physical barriers between workers, and 41 offered Covid-19 tests to workers.
On Monday, a coalition of more than 120 groups sent letters to Tyson's largest shareholders urging them to ask the meat producer to protect its workers better by offering paid leave, ensuring daily testing and other measures. A Tyson spokesperson said in a statement that the company's top priority is "well-being of our team members, their families and our communities."
"From early in the pandemic, we took numerous protective measures at our facilities to prevent the spread of the virus, and we continue to explore innovations such as new mask designs and contact tracing technology to make our workplaces even safer," a company spokesperson said.
Tyson also said that it believes it has conducted more testing than any other company in the industry and has disclosed verified test results. The company said it is working closely with health officials and other medical experts.