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Congress Finally Investigating Employee Protection Failures at Nation’s Meat Plants

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Tyson, JBS, and Smithfield will all be evaluated on their handling of the COVID-19 crisis

Smithfield Foods pork processing plant sign. Photo by KEREM YUCEL/AFP via Getty Images

A House subcommittee has launched an investigation into how major meat processors and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) responded to coronavirus outbreaks and deaths in meatpacking facilities, a source of rapid transmission of the virus during the early months of the pandemic.

Rep. James Clyburn, a Democrat from South Carolina and chairman of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, announced the probe on February 1 and sent letters to OSHA — the Department of Labor agency meant to ensure safe and healthy working conditions — as well as Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods, and JBS USA, three of the country’s largest meatpacking companies.

There have been a combined total of at least 41 major outbreaks in connection with JBS, Tyson, and Smithfield, the New York Times reported using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The subcommittee’s press release announcing the investigation cites reports that more than 56,000 meatpacking workers have tested positive for COVID-19, and more than 270 have died, per the Food & Environment Reporting Network’s tracker. Employees who are racial and ethnic minorities are disproportionately affected by outbreaks at these kinds of plants, the CDC found.

“Public reports indicate that meatpacking companies … have refused to take basic precautions to protect their workers, many of whom earn extremely low wages and lack adequate paid leave, and have shown a callous disregard for workers’ health,” Clyburn wrote in his letters to the three companies. “These actions appear to have resulted in thousands of meatpacking workers getting infected with the virus and hundreds dying. Outbreaks at meatpacking plants have also spread to surrounding communities, killing many more Americans.”

The probe is also taking aim at OSHA, accusing the agency under the Trump administration of failing to “adequately carry out its responsibility for enforcing worker safety laws at meatpacking plants across the country, resulting in preventable infections and deaths,” Clyburn wrote in his letter. In response to coronavirus-related violations at meatpacking companies, OSHA issued just eight citations and less than $80,000 in penalties — amounting to what former OSHA leaders called “less than a slap on the wrist,” Food Dive reported.

“OSHA failed to issue enforceable rules, respond in a timely manner to complaints, and issue meaningful fines when a company’s unsafe practices led to the deaths of employees,” Clyburn wrote. “As a result, I am concerned that under the Trump Administration, OSHA did not fulfill its mission to protect vulnerable meatpacking workers during the pandemic.”