The Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN) has been tracking infections since April in the sectors of meatpacking plants, food processing facilities, and farms.
Reporter Leah Douglas gleans the data from local news reports, state and federal health offices, and sometimes companies to piece together a picture of how Covid-19 has gripped workers across the food system.
The numbers are grim. According to data that is updated each weekday, currently more than 63,230 workers across three sectors have tested positive, and 267 have died.
Out of that total, 213 were meatpacking workers, representing a whopping 79.7 percent of deaths.
More than 100 meat processing plants operated by companies including Smithfield and Tyson have had outbreaks of Covid-19.
As FERN’s Douglas reported in September, several states including Kansas and Arkansas have rolled back or stalled recent efforts to boost reporting on outbreaks, making health information less transparent and harder for public health officials to tackle.
Labor advocates cite crowded working conditions, lack of protection and lack of workers’ legal status as factors for higher infection rates in that sector.
In California, a Foster Farm plant closed at the end of last month after nearly 400 workers tested positive and 8 people died.
A massive outbreak at a Smithfield meatpacking plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota in April has sparked fresh calls from lawmakers for the U.S. Labor Department to explain how nearly 1,300 employees at one plant contracted coronavirus, killing four people.
Workers from the CDC had visited the plant and given instructions on how to protect employees and reduce transmission, but the lawmakers say those recommendations were later withdrawn or watered down.
In late April after intense lobbying from the meatpacking industry, President Trump signed an executive order naming meatpacking plants as “critical infrastructure,” which stalled efforts to close plants with coronavirus outbreaks.
A report in September by the watchdog group Public Citizen and American Oversight revealed a series of government email documents showing one week before the decision, the North American Meat Institute had drafted a document that was strikingly similar to the president’s executive order.
Mapping Covid-19 Outbreaks In The Food System (Food and Environment Reporting Network)
A California Chicken Plant Just Had the Deadliest Meatpacking Outbreak Yet (Mother Jones)
Democrats Demand Answers From Labor Department On CDC Recommendations For Meatpacking Plant (The Hill)