Counties with Meat-Packaging Plants Report Double the National Average of COVID-19 Infections
Counties with meat-packing plants account for 10% of confirmed cases, despite having only 7.5% of the country’s population.
On April 28th, Donald Trump signed an executive order forcing meat processing plants to reopen, causing COVID-19 to spread at double the rate in communities near these facilities compared to other areas.
The executive order designated slaughterhouses as critical infrastructure and shielded the companies that run them from lawsuits. The week following this order, Bloomberg reported that counties with major beef or pork facilities saw a 40% rise in confirmed cases, compared to a 19% increase nationwide. Moreover the Guardian found that around half of America’s top 25 coronavirus “hotspots” were in areas that house meat plants, including Dakota County in Nebraska, which had the second-highest rate of infection within the United States, with about one out of every 14 residents testing positive.
Bloomberg’s analysis also found that across the 72 “slaughterhouse counties” in the U.S. with populations of less than 1 million people, there was a 47% rise in cases in the week following Trump’s executive order.
Preceding Trump’s shortsighted order in late April, dozens of meat plants had closed earlier that month—inciting fears that the country’s meat supply chain was in jeopardy, while also shining a light on the poor conditions faced by slaughterhouse workers. Tony Corbo, a senior lobbyist at the non-profit advocacy group Food & Water Watch, stated, “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. Even now, it’s taken plants to be shut down for companies to provide protective gear for workers.”
Furthermore, recent coronavirus outbreaks aren’t contained to workers in the plants and their families; they have begun to spread outwards into surrounding communities. More than 10,000 people have been infected due to meat plant outbreaks, and at least 45 have died, according to USA today and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration released guidelines for meatpacking plants to help ensure worker safety. The guidelines suggest that plants implement social distancing measures, such as spacing out workers on the line and in break rooms or putting visual cues showing six feet of distance on the floor.
Although many companies said they have implemented these social distancing measures for their workers, Smithfield Foods, one of the largest meatpacking companies in the U.S., said doing so would be difficult.
"There are inescapable realities about our industry," a statement on its website reads. "Meat processing facilities, which are characterized by labor-intensive assembly-line style production, are not designed for social distancing."
Meanwhile more than 170 plants have had a worker test positive for COVID-19, and at least seven additional meat facilities shut down in May despite Trump’s executive order.
COVID-19 is causing significant and devastating economic impacts on the meat industry and the country as a whole — and there is no hiding that everyone wants the economy to start up again. But we have to ask, at what cost? Is keeping meat-processing facilities open really more important than the lives we are jeopardizing in doing so? Is saving a year’s profit for the meat industry worth this pandemic continuing on?
Our financial decisions can either help transform the economy or preserve the status quo. The way we spend, and moreover the way we invest, have a massive impact on policy change and government decisions. As an investor, you have the agency to support firms that put their employee’s health before profits, companies that raise the bar through their ethical commitments and standards.
Let’s make financial decisions that support workers’ health and the health of their loved ones. Our active support can reach far past the pandemic, yielding benefits for years to come.
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