Processing Plants: How COVID-19 Response Has Affected Employee Well-Being and Facility Operations
Trump’s Executive Order: Animal Agriculture is “Essential”
President Donald Trump signed “Executive Order (April 2020), Delegating Authority Under the Defense Production Act [DPA] with Respect to the Food Supply Chain Resources During the National Emergency Caused by the Outbreak of COVID-19.” The purpose of Trump’s Executive Order is to maintain a functioning and efficient food supply chain. This order was implemented in response to supply chain disruptions amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 outbreaks within animal product processing facilities and the shuttering of restaurants are both main causes for the supply chain disruption. President Trump delegated powers to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue under the DPA: Perdue has the authority to require contractual fulfillment at processing plants.
President Trump’s true aim in addressing processing plants via the DPA: he wants to remove liability so that workers and members of the community infected with COVID-19 cannot sue processing plants in the future.
Processing plants are susceptible to COVID-19 outbreaks because workers stand shoulder to shoulder in an assembly line. Animal product processing plants take priority in the food supply chain and production at a fast rate is favored over worker safety. Additionally, there is a long history of worker exploitation in this industry.
Points of View
P.O.V. - Employees
Employees of processing plants frequently mention they wish they could shelter in place at home with their families, but cannot do so because they will only receive pay if they put in a great deal of hours. They point out: company executives do not have to report to work and are at home with their families or practicing social distancing in private offices. Infected employees have spread the virus to members of their household. Residents in cities and surrounding areas are concerned about the potential for community spread. In some facilities proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is not provided and in many cases (such as Smithfield-owned plants) PPE was provided after an outbreak. Hundreds were infected and lives were lost so introducing PPE after the fact and forcing workers back to work was not an effective measure.
P.O.V. - Processing Plant Companies
Companies claim they are responsible for “feeding the country.” They claim they are an essential part of the food supply chain. Since the supply chain has been suddenly disrupted due to COVID-19, many farms and slaughterhouses were left with a surplus of animals and “no space” to care for them. The industry chooses to “cull” or “euthanize” (kill and discard) animals if processing plants are not available to receive carcasses. Companies frequently state that the FDA has found no evidence that COVID-19 can spread via food or food packaging.
P.O.V. - Government Regulatory Agencies
Government Regulatory Agencies have many reasons to support peak processing plant production, but commonly cite their guidelines and inspections in regard to worker safety. The CDC, FDA, and OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) issued abrupt safety guidelines for the COVID-19 pandemic. They claim this can allow plants to stay open while ensuring worker safety. The CDC and OSHA issued the first COVID-19 safety recommendations in the U.S.: Interim Guidance. This document aims to keep processing plants open regardless of outbreaks, as long as precautions are at a basic minimum of precautions and exposed workers remain asymptomatic.
COVID-19 Breakout Incidents in Processing Plants
An Iowa Tyson Foods “pork” processing plant experienced a COVID-19 outbreak. As of May 2020 there are 555 confirmed cases. The Storm Lake plant stated they are temporarily closing because of delayed testing results and quarantined employee absences.
In Vernon, CA, the Smithfield Foods-owned Farmer John plant had 140 employees test positive as of May 2020. Although the company has implemented temperature checks and plastic barriers, employees state they’re not safe because cases continue to increase.
One of the largest outbreaks: Smithfield Foods “pork” processing plant in South Dakota. This plant had more than 700 infected. This outbreak made national headlines because their corporate spokesperson wrongly claimed the spread was due to cultural practices of the large immigrant population (she claimed too many individuals live together in one household).
A Human Tragedy
- Two employees of Tyson Foods’ Columbus Junction, Iowa, “pork” processing plant have died due to COVID-19.
- An employee at Smithfield’s Sioux Falls, South Dakota facility has died.
- As of early May, the CDC estimated 20 “meat” processing employee deaths nationwide.
- The CDC reported almost 5,000 employees affected nationwide.
An Animal Tragedy
Those most affected by the supply chain disruption are the animals because mass genocide has been committed against them under the guise of “euthanasia,” “culling,” or “population control.” Hundreds of thousands of animals on farms are being killed and disposed of per week during this “population control” process. Many die slowly and painfully due to ventilation shutdown. Factory farming and animal processing kills so many per year and is so fast paced that this unexpected disruption has caused farmers to kill animals and dispose of them. Temperature and feed has also been modified to slow growth. Farmers did not have to kill animals themselves in the past and have stated this is upsetting to them. However, what it is most upsetting to the industry is profit loss.