As part of an investigation into the spread of coronavirus at U.S. meat plants, Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker released responses from major producers that defended their operations during the pandemic.
The four biggest meatpackers — Tyson Foods Inc., JBS USA, Cargill Inc. and Smithfield Foods Inc. — pointed to measures such as staggering shifts and sanitation systems, but gave soft responses when it came to implementing social distancing in production areas of the plants where workers are often in elbow-to-elbow conditions.
The letters amount to some of the most extensive explanations to date about how the meat producers responded to the crisis.
The companies gave no indication that workers were consistently being spaced apart on production lines. Cargill said it was raising “awareness” over maintaining distance, while Tyson said it installed barriers on production lines where “social distancing is not possible.” JBS said it increased spacing in cafeterias, but didn’t cite distancing measures for production lines.
Meanwhile, Smithfield gave a more straightforward response.
“For better or worse, our plants are what they are,” Chief Executive Officer Ken Sullivan said. “Four walls, engineered design, efficient use of space, etc. Spread out? Okay. Where? To say it is a challenge is an understatement.”
Thousands of America’s meat workers have fallen ill with coronavirus as infections spread rapidly through the cramped factories, and dozens have died. While companies took steps to protect employees — including by installing plexiglass barriers, distributing protective equipment and setting up hand-washing stations — experts and analysts have repeatedly warned that workers would remain vulnerable without an increase in physical distance on production lines.
The senators criticized the companies for not adequately allowing workers to keep 6 feet away from one another and for shipping pork and beef overseas to meet export orders during the outbreak.
None of the companies gave specifics on the number of cases or deaths at their plants.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has made it painfully clear that these giant meatpackers can use their power to exploit their workers for profit,” Warren said in a statement. “We also need to massively reform our broken food and farm system to give workers, farmers, and consumer real bargaining power.”
Following are highlights of the responses sent to the senators from the companies:
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