Last week, we wrote about the tense situation workers in the nation's meatpacking plants are facing during the COVID-19 outbreak. Severe outbreaks at meat processing facilities across the country created the possibility of a food shortage. These outbreaks were so severe that many of them became some of the worst clusters of COVID-19 cases in the nation.
After many plants shutdown when nearly half of their workforce contracted the virus, leaders of the industry, such as Tyson Foods, warned of the possibility of a meat shortage. Then, the Trump administration ordered meat plants around the nation to reopen to combat this shortage. Workers called reopening terrifying while plant owners called it essential.
Now, more than 200 additional workers at a Tyson Fresh Meats plant in Madison, Nebraska have tested positive for the coronavirus. Their results came after facility-wide testing was conducted between May 1 and May 4. As of May 11, Madison County had 265 confirmed cases of the virus.
Why Is the Tyson Foods Madison Coronavirus Outbreak Problematic?
This outbreak comes after John Tyson, chairman of Tyson Foods, took out advertisements threatening the breakdown of the food supply chain if plants remained closed. Yet, the company is accused of business practices that have made the meat industry particularly vulnerable to a virus outbreak—Tyson Foods, JBA, and Cargill Inc. control about two-thirds of the American meat industry.
"This is 100% a symptom of consolidation," said Christopher Leonard, an author who writes about the meat industry. "We don't have a crisis of supply right now. We have a crisis in processing. And the virus is exposing the profound fragility that comes with this kind of consolidation."
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 115 meat and poultry facilities have had COVID-19 outbreaks across 19 states. The CDC estimates that at least 4,913 meatpacking workers have contracted the virus—a number that has already increased to over 5,000 thanks to the recent Madison, Nebraska Tyson Fresh Meats plant outbreak.
"I do expect for the U.S. and Canadian governments to look very closely at how things are done today and how we need to do it differently to protect the national interest, so if and when such an event happens again, we're better prepared for it," said Kevin Kenny, chief operating officer of Decernis, an expert in global food safety and supply chains.
Meanwhile, union leaders worry that "workers are being sacrificed" because of the way the nation's meatpacking plants operate. As cases continue to spread in reopened meat processing facilities, accountability will serve as the best way to obtain the help and answers that workers deserve.
If you became ill with COVID-19 while working at a meatpacking facility, contact Arnold & Itkin's plant COVID-19 attorneys for help.