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COVID-19 rates in meatpacking counties now mirror other rural counties

Rural counties dominated by meatpacking plants endured their second surge in coronavirus cases during this winter but the latest wave “does not appear to be driven by new outbreaks in the meatpacking industry,” said the USDA. “Meatpacking-dependent counties have maintained an almost identical pattern to other rural counties for the last seven months.”

In the early weeks of the pandemic, infection rates in rural meatpacking counties were 10 times higher than in other rural counties, dropping to seven times higher by the end of May. Preventive steps such as partial plant closures and adoption of social distancing protocols may have been a factor in the reduction that lasted until the fall, said USDA’s Economic Research Service in a report last week. There are 49 rural counties where meatpacking accounts for at least 20% of employment.

Infection rates began to climb quickly in October in all counties and peaked in December. “While this represented a first peak for most of rural America, it was the second for meatpacking-dependent rural counties, more than 1.5 times higher than during the initial outbreak from April,” said USDA. “Even though meatpacking-dependent counties were dealing with a second wave, the surge in rural new cases does not appear to be driven by new outbreaks in the meatpacking industry.”

The meatpacking industry asked the Biden administration on Monday to encourage states to prioritize vaccinations for their workers “so they can keep food on America’s tables and our farm economy working.” In Kansas, where one-third of the 12,000 meatpacking workers have been infected by the coronavirus and two dozen have died, the state has begun an inoculation drive aimed at the workers, in collaboration with meat companies, unions, and local officials, reported the Kansas Reflector. It said meatpacking plants “have registered as the third-largest source of COVID-19 infection in Kansas.”

Last fall, researchers said livestock processing plants were associated with up to 8% of U.S. cases of COVID-19 and up to 4% of deaths through July 21, 2020. “Our study suggests that, among essential industries, livestock processing poses a particular public health risk extending far beyond meatpacking companies and their employees,” said their paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The authors said their work was based on observational evidence and “we avoided causal language.”

COVID-19 outbreaks slowed U.S. meat production in late April and early May. President Trump signed an executive order to keep the plants in operation. Employees complained that meat companies were slow to provide protective equipment or implement safeguards against the coronavirus. Companies said they followed federal guidelines while performing an essential duty.

At least 57,679 meatpacking workers have tested positive for COVID-19 and at least 284 meatpacking employees have died of the disease during the pandemic, according to data compiled by FERN as of Tuesday.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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