Infectious as “wet markets” are, U.S. slaughterhouse conditions appear to be much worse
WATERLOO & SIOUX CITY, Iowa; SIOUX FALLS, South Dakota––COVID-19 has infected hundreds of U.S. slaughterhouse workers, who may have spread the pandemic disease to whole cities, USA Today reported late on April 22, 2020.
The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China, became globally notorious as the likely point of origin of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic after 28 of the first 41 people infected were found to have worked there. That was apparently enough to spread COVID-19 worldwide within days of the disease outbreak being identified.
But working conditions in the U.S. slaughter industry may be infecting magnitudes of order more people directly than were directly infected at the Wuhan “wet market.”
“More than a third” of biggest U.S. slaughterhouses
USA Today writers Kyle Bagenstose, Sky Chadde and Matt Wynn, working with the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, found that “More than 150 of America’s largest meat processing plants operate in counties where the rate of coronavirus infection is already among the nation’s highest,” they explained.
“These facilities represent more than one in three of the nation’s biggest beef, pork and poultry processing plants. Rates of infection around these plants are higher than those of 75% of other U.S. counties, the analysis found,” Bagenstose, Chadde, and Wynn wrote.
Altogether, the reporting team logged “infections in at least 2,200 workers at 48 plants.”
COVID-19 hits Iowa slaughterhouses hardest
The USA Today report hit the web only hours after Tyson Foods closed a pig slaughterhouse in Waterloo, Iowa, due to what Tyson Fresh Meats group president Steve Stouffer called “the combination of worker absenteeism, COVID-19 cases and community concerns.”
Union representatives and Black Hawk County officials had asked that the slaughterhouse be closed, after 182 of the 379 COVID-19 cases found in the county were linked to it. The slaughterhouse, the largest in the Tyson Pork Group, normally employs about 2,800 people.
“At Iowa Premium in Tama,” added Brandon Pollock of the Waterloo Courier, “177 out of more than 500 workers tested positive for the virus. The facility had been shuttered since April 10, but reopened” on April 20, 2020.
Governor rejects union appeals for intervention
“State public health officials define an outbreak as confirmed cases in at least 10% of a business’ employees,” Pollock continued. Going by that definition, Pollock reported, “Outbreaks have also occurred at Tyson plants in Columbus Junction and Perry, and at a Smithfield Foods plant just across the northwest border in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
But Iowa governor Kim Reynolds, a Republican, rejected an appeal, Pollock wrote, from “a coalition of Iowa unions that represents a total of 6,600 workers,” who asked her to “slow the speed of production lines so workers can create more distance between each other, mandate workers wear face masks or other coverings, and take steps to ensure the enforcement of worker safety standards.”
Cargill Ltd. temporarily closed a cattle slaughterhouse in High River, Alberta, after more than 350 workers tested positive for COVID-19.
How one Tyson worker died
Tyson Fresh Meats, however, continued to resist appeals to close a cattle slaughterhouse in Dakota City, despite the COVID-19 death of at least one senior employee and other COVID-19 cases found among the 4,300 workers. More than 150 cases have been reported in the two surrounding counties.
Wrote Sioux City Journal reporter Peggy Senzarino, “Raymundo Corral, 64, a front line worker at the beef plant, died on April 19, 2020 at his Sioux City home, his wife Anna Bell told the Journal,” soon after the local medical examiner confirmed COVID-19 as the cause.
“Bell said her husband started feeling ill about two weeks ago, but he continued to report to duty at the sprawling plant,” Senzarino recounted. “Despite reporting symptoms of the virus, he was not given access to a test, she said.”
Bell, 57, and their daughter, Sarah Corral, also tested positive for COVID-19, and were hospitalized, Senzarino said.
“Sitting ducks” lured by bonus
“Each member of the family had underlying medical conditions, which health experts say increases the risk of contracting COVID-19,” Senzarino mentioned. “Ray Corral had high blood pressure and was diabetic. Bell is a cancer survivor who also suffers from an irregular heartbeat and high blood pressure. Their daughter has diabetes.
“We were sitting ducks,” Bell acknowledged to Senzarino, adding “I am not buying the company line that they weren’t a hot spot. They were offering a bonus of $500 if you didn’t miss a shift. People wanted that $500.”
Ray Corral did not miss a day of work from the time Tyson promised the bonus, in late March 2020, until he and two dozen other Tyson employees clocked out early due to illness the day before he died.
Smithfield ran “largest coronavirus hotbed in the U.S.”
About an hour and a half north, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, “Smithfield Foods’ meat processing plant has become the largest coronavirus hotbed in the United States with about 735 associated cases,” Forbes staff reporter Alexandra Sternlicht wrote on April 16, 2020.
The Smithfield Foods slaughterhouse was closed on April 12, but COVID-19 continued to spread among workers who may have been infected on the job. A week after the closure, the case total among Smithfield workers reportedly exceeded 900.
“Smithfield Foods employee Augustin Rodriguez, 64, became the first coronavirus fatality from the plant’s outbreak, according to the [Sioux Falls] Argus Leader,” Sternlicht continued, “which reported that Rodriguez continued working at the plant after he began to have symptoms of COVID-19; he was hospitalized on April 4.”
Smithfield Foods, owned by Hong Kong-based WH Group, closed other slaughterhouses in Cudahy, Wisconsin; Martin City, Missouri; and Arnold, Pennsylvania, “after employees at these locations tested positive for coronavirus,” Sternlicht said.
“More than 10% of U.S. hog slaughtering capacity is down”
The Brazilian-based JBS company, on April 20, 2020 announced closure of a pig slaughterhouse in Worthington, Minnesota, the third largest in the U.S., after seven of the 2,000 workers tested positive for COVID-19.
“The closure means that more than 10% of U.S. hog slaughtering capacity is down,” reported Jen Skerritt and Michael Hirtzer for Bloomberg News.
This was after more than 100 workers developed COVID-19 at other JBS slaughterhouses, noted Isabel Vincent of the New York Post, obliging JBS to shut down several of the other facilities, “but the pandemic may be the least of its problems,” opined Vincent.
“The Brazilian billionaire brothers controlling the massive meat producer JBS, which slaughters 13 million animals a day and has revenues of $50 billion a year, have been linked to high-level government corruption that has rocked [Brazil],” Vincent explained.
“After admitting to bribing nearly 2,000 elected officials in Brazil in order to secure government funding to fuel their company’s U.S. expansion a few years ago,” Vincent summarized, “Joesley and Wesley Batista were slapped with more than $3.2 billion in fines in 2017, the highest in the country’s history.
“The Batistas’ company is also being probed in America now for bribery,” Vincent continued, “and has been accused of price-gouging during the COVID-19 crisis.”
No market for piglets
The U.S. pig industry has thus far in 2020 lost an estimated $5 billion, assessed David Pitt of Associated Press on April 21, 2020.
With slaughterhouses closed, “almost overnight millions of hogs stacking up on farms now have little value,” Pitt reported.
“Some farmers have resorted to killing piglets,” Pitt said, “because plunging sales mean there is no room to hold additional animals in increasingly cramped conditions.
Even before COVID-19 hit, Pitt wrote, pig farmers “entered this spring in shaky financial condition because tariffs had drastically reduced sales to China and Mexico. Many operations have struggled to get enough workers, in part due to federal immigration policies. Then demand plunged because COVID-19 forced the closure of restaurants, hotels and other businesses that buy about 25% of pork, including nearly three-quarters of bacon produced in the U.S.”
Subsidies & the runs
The National Pork Producers Council has asked the USDA “to buy $1 billion worth of pork in cold storage that had been destined for restaurants and instead give it to food banks,” Pitt recounted. The USDA responded by announcing that it will buy about $3 billion worth of animal products of all sorts for food banks, and would issue $1.6 billion in direct payments to pig farmers “with limits of $250,000 per individual,” Pitt finished.
Farm Journal Ag Web meanwhile warned the U.S. pig industry that another bat-carried coronavirus, distantly related to COVID-19 and already hitting pigs in China, could soon follow COVID-19 to the U.S.
“In 2018,” Farm Journal Ag Web explained, “swine acute diarrhea syndrome coronavirus (SADS-CoV), related to the bat coronavirus HKU2, was associated with severe outbreaks of diarrhea with high mortality rates in pigs in China,” similar to the effects of porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, which swept the U.S. in 2013-2014, killing at least seven million pigs.
Porcine epidemic diarrhea virus also hit Italy, coincidentally among the nations hardest hit by COVID-19.
Industry takes opportunity to speed up the killing
The USA Today and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting spotlight on the role of pig slaughterhouses in spreading COVID-19 among humans unfortunately upstaged an exposé by Bibi van der Zee, Tom Levitt and Andrew Wasley of The Guardian of how poultry slaughter line speed increases quietly authorized by the Food Safety Inspection Service “mean 11 poultry plants have been given waivers to operate higher line speeds in the past fortnight,” along with “A number of beef and pork plants.
“The move will allow the chicken factories to slaughter as many as 175 birds a minute – the equivalent of three per second,” van der Zee, Levitt, and Wasley reported. “Under traditional poultry processing rules, line speeds ran at 140 birds a minute,” van der Zee, Levitt, and Wasley explained, “and required at least four inspectors to be stationed on each line, tasked with checking carcasses for defects, disease or contamination, including fecal matter which can cause salmonella.”
Flunking the salmonella standard
The Food Safety Inspection Service argues that the speed-ups are warranted by 20 years’ worth of “data gathered under the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points-based Inspection Models Project pilot study.”
But 11.8% of inspected poultry slaughterhouses failed the U.S federal salmonella contamination standard in 2019, the Guardian team found.
Salmonellosis costs the U.S. about 1.2 million illnesses, 23,000 hospitalizations, and 450 deaths per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.