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Meat plants tied to 6-8% of early COVID-19 cases

At least 253 meatpacking workers have died and more than 49,000 of their coworkers have tested positive for COVID-19.

Livestock processing plants “may act as transmission vectors” for spreading the coronavirus, said researchers who estimated the plants were associated with 6% to 8% of COVID-19 cases nationwide during the early months of the pandemic. “Ensuring both public health and robust essential supply chains may require an increase in meatpacking oversight and potentially a shift toward more decentralized, smaller-scale meat production,” said the researchers in a paper appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In their paper, researchers Charles Taylor of Columbia University and Christopher Boulos and Douglas Almond of the University of Chicago took care to avoid suggesting causality since they were dealing with observational data.

U.S. meat production slowed last spring and meat prices rose in grocery stores due to coronavirus outbreaks among packing plant workers. At least 253 meatpacking workers have died and more than 49,000 of their coworkers have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began, according to data compiled by FERN as of last week.

“We estimate the total excess COVID-19 cases and deaths associated with proximity to livestock plants to be 236,000 to 310,000 (6% to 8% of all U.S. cases) and 4,300 to 5,200 (3% to 4% of all U.S. deaths), respectively, as of July 21, 2020, with the vast majority likely related to community spread outside these plants,” they said in their study. “Our results indicate a strong positive relationship between livestock-processing plants and local community transmission of COVID-19, suggesting that these plants may act as transmission vectors into the surrounding population and accelerate the spread of the virus beyond what would be predicted solely by population risk characteristics.”

The researchers said an implication of their analysis was that large packing plants were especially susceptible to the spread of respiratory viruses, perhaps because of the larger number of employees present or a larger number of workplace interactions. For their study, they used county data to look at coronavirus infections and the presence of processing plants.

Temporary shutdowns were useful in reducing COVID-19 rates, the researchers said, compared with rates in counties where plants remained in production. Poultry plants with USDA waivers allow faster-than-usual line speeds than plants without the waivers; noteworthy, they said, “given that these waivers were intended for plants with safe commercial production practices and microbial control. This finding suggests a need for additional examination of this program.”

“The last thing we need right now are faster hog, beef, and poultry line speeds with more contaminated products and more food workers at risk,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of the consumer group Food and Water Watch. “Unlike Trump, the Biden administration should scrap these efforts and actually work to protect public health instead of industry profits.”

The study, “Livestock plants and COVID-19 transmission,” is available here.

In data analyses, FERN has also has drawn correlations between the presence of meatpacking plants and disease rates in surrounding communities, as well as line speeds in chicken plants and rates of disease.

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