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Democrats investigate COVID outbreaks at meat packing plants in the United States | News on the coronavirus pandemic

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Democrat-led House panel launches investigation into coronavirus outbreaks at meat packing plants and whether the Occupational Safety and Health Administration properly enforced safety rules workers.

Representative James Clyburn, who chairs the House selection subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis, sent letters Monday to Tyson Foods Inc., Smithfield Foods Inc. and JBS USA requesting information on the number of sick employees , facility closures, safety measures and leave policies for when workers have tested positive. Nearly 54,000 workers at 569 meat-packing plants in the United States have tested positive for Covid-19, and at least 270 have died, Clyburn said in the letters.

Meat packers “have refused to take basic precautions to protect their workers, many of whom earn extremely low wages and do not have adequate paid time off, and have shown a cruel disregard for the health of their workers. workers, ”the letters to the companies said.

Tyson’s share price fell 0.1% at 12:38 p.m. in New York City after falling 2.7% previously. Brazil-based JBS fell 0.62% at 2:38 p.m. in Sao Paulo trading, after falling 1.65% following the news of the survey.

Clyburn also asked OSHA to explain the relative lack of citations and sanctions against meat packing plants under the Trump administration, even though the facility has become an epicenter for the spread of the virus.

OSHA has issued coronavirus-related penalties totaling more than $ 3.9 million, but the agency issued just eight citations and less than $ 80,000 in penalties for coronavirus-related violations at packaging companies of meat, ”the letter says.

Gary Mickelson, a spokesperson for Tyson, said in a statement that worker health and safety is the company’s top priority and that they have implemented virus testing and added a chief medical officer for help meet health guidelines in the aftermath of the pandemic. .

Keira Lombardo, chief executive of Smithfield, said in a statement the company has taken “extraordinary measures” to protect employees who have exceeded government guidelines and looks forward to correcting “inaccuracies” regarding the spread. of the virus in meat plants.

JBS has invested in security measures and facility modifications and welcomes the opportunity to share “our response to the global pandemic and our efforts to protect our workforce,” according to a company statement.

OSHA did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Hot spots

The spread of the virus has made meat processing plants one of the first hot spots in the US pandemic, forcing facilities to shut down temporarily.

Meat companies have spent hundreds of millions installing workstation dividers, disinfection stations, temperature scanners, and adding medical staff. The industry has spent more than $ 1.5 billion on “comprehensive protections instituted since the spring,” according to Sarah Little, spokesperson for the North American Meat Institute.

Public health studies have suggested that outbreaks in seeded meat packing plants then spread to surrounding communities, a study by researchers at the University of Chicago and Columbia University linking up to 1 in 12 cases of Covid in the early stages of the pandemic to meat processing. facilities

OSHA’s weak sanctions have drawn criticism from Democrats, including Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Cory Booker of New Jersey. Lawmakers have cited the meat-packing industry as an example of how companies have failed to protect low-paid frontline workers.

OSHA defended the amount of the fines. In reference to a $ 13,494 fine against Smithfield Foods – after 1,300 workers at the Sioux Falls, South Dakota meat packing plant tested positive for the virus, 43 were hospitalized and four died between March 22 and June 16 – OSHA said this was the maximum penalty allowed by law.

OSHA released new workplace safety guidelines on Friday to strengthen protection against the virus.

Clyburn has set a deadline of February 15 for OSHA staff to notify lawmakers and companies to respond with requested data.


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