U.S. Meat Plants Are Deadly as Ever, With No Incentive to Change

U.S. Meat Plants Are Deadly as Ever, With No Incentive to Change

Stephanie Morales was weighing her coronavirus symptoms against an 8-pound hunk of fancy steak. That Saturday in April, her bosses at the JBS meatpacking plant in Cactus, Texas, had promised their 3,000 employees that anyone who worked that day would receive half of an Angus rib-eye. At the typical $9 a pound or more, this bonus equaled at least half a day’s wages for her and many other workers at the plant, where the pay starts at $16.20 an hour. She decided she couldn’t pass up the deal. Morales, 25, had had a fever the previous weekend, and that Thursday she’d vomited at the plant during her break. But when she went to see the nurses, they took her vitals, said she was fine, and sent her back to work. Morales planned to tough it out.

“I wasn’t going to get tested, because on Saturday they were going to give out half a slab of rib-eye, and I really wanted it,” she says. “I thought, I’ll get tested on Monday.” Morales says her husband eventually talked her into getting screened that Friday. She tested positive for Covid-19 and didn’t get to collect the prized meat, though she did make a full recovery. Two months later, there were six Covid-19 deaths associated with the plant and more than 900 infections. (The company disputed those numbers but did not provide its own.) While this was going on, managers at multiple JBS plants were promising $600 to workers with no unexcused absences.

Throughout the industry this spring, bonuses of steak and cash were instrumental in keeping workers on the job as the coronavirus rampaged through U.S. meatpacking plants. The payouts forced people on the lowest rung of the economic ladder to assess their pocketbooks against the health of their families and themselves. Yet when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told JBS and other meatpackers to stop offering incentives based on attendance, lest employees come to work sick, the companies didn’t listen. Why should they? The CDC has no legal authority over the industry, so even in the grip of the pandemic, adherence to its directives was purely voluntary. “CDC was requested to do initial inspections and offer recommendations,” wrote Jason McDonald, a CDC spokesman, in an emailed response to questions. Any follow-up inspections would have to be done by other agencies, he wrote. Asked about the CDC’s report, JBS said bonus eligibility was not tied to sick days. “Throughout this pandemic, we have prioritized team member health and safety above everything else,” a spokesperson wrote in an emailed response.

The federal agency that does have the power to regulate conditions in meat plants is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, part of the Department of Labor. But with its staff cut by the Trump administration and its inspection activity sharply curtailed, the agency hasn’t issued a single enforceable order for what meat plants should do to prevent workers from contracting Covid-19. As usual, meatpacking companies are on their own, unencumbered by regulators they’ve assiduously kept at bay.

U.S. Meat Plants Are Deadly as Ever, With No Incentive to Change

Together, JBS SA and three other big U.S. producers, Tyson Foods, Cargill, and National Beef, control more than 80% of the U.S. beef market. There have long been allegations of price fixing, driving up costs at the supermarket. For the past decade, meatpackers and processors have spent close to $5 million annually on lobbying, up from only $542,000 in 1999. The industry spent $1.3 million on the 2018 election, with two-thirds of that going to Republican candidates, according to an analysis of campaign finance data from the Center for Responsive Politics. After Tyson ran full-page newspaper ads and a statement on its website warning of food shortages if meat and poultry plants were forced to shutter, President Trump signed an executive order to keep them open.

In the interest of averting cases like Morales’s, the CDC warned JBS on April 20 to stop offering inducements for workers to come in, but JBS ultimately didn’t follow the agency’s advice. OSHA, for its part, ordered its staff in April to do in-person inspections only of hospitals and other front-line facilities during the pandemic—not meat plants—because health-care employees and first responders were deemed to be the only workers at sufficient risk of contracting the virus to warrant immediate investigation. All other OSHA probes were to proceed by phone and fax. Even in normal times, OSHA and its state partners have just 2,100 inspectors, who are responsible for the well-being of 130 million U.S. workers at more than 8 million work sites. That translates to one compliance officer for every 59,000 workers.

All the while, Americans demand meat, consuming about 224 pounds per capita a year at very low prices. The pandemic has done nothing to quell that hunger, even though 98 meat industry workers have died from the coronavirus and about 27,000, almost 1 in 20, have gotten sick, according to the Food and Environment Reporting Network, a nonprofit news organization. Sales have skyrocketed during the pandemic, rising 51% by dollar amount and 37% by volume year over year for the week ended May 3.

A safer, less deadly meat industry could be fashioned through widespread legislative and regulatory reform. Consumers, too, could force change with mass boycotts—or if they were willing to spend more money on less meat. But in the absence of pressure, the industry has no incentive to change. Covid-19 has become just another workplace hazard in one of America’s deadliest industries.

In 2009, when President Obama took office, the H1N1 swine flu pandemic was sweeping around the globe. OSHA ordered all employers and workplaces to follow the CDC’s guidelines, which consisted largely of social distancing and wearing face masks and other protective gear. It was a successful workaround for a significant issue: OSHA had no rule, and creating one was an enormously time-consuming, politically sensitive process. The following year, OSHA launched the long bureaucratic process of promulgating its own workplace standards for combating infectious diseases. Those rules were almost finished in 2017, when Trump took office.

U.S. Meat Plants Are Deadly as Ever, With No Incentive to Change

His administration significantly cut back OSHA health and safety probes. Ergonomic investigations, which look into the most common work-related ailments, were slashed by a third. The agency has nearly ceased issuing press releases shaming company violators, blunting one of its most potent enforcement tools. OSHA has also been handicapped by staff cuts: It has fewer health and safety inspectors today than it did 40 years ago, even though the U.S. workforce has almost doubled, and it performs about 25% fewer inspections than it did a decade ago. The agency declined to comment.

OSHA hasn’t issued a single job site requirement for how meatpackers should protect workers. By failing to compel companies to follow CDC guidelines or take any other pandemic measures, OSHA has left meat workers particularly exposed, says Debbie Berkowitz, a nonprofit labor advocate who served as the agency’s chief of staff and as a special adviser in the Obama administration. She calls OSHA’s pandemic response a “total desertion of duty.”

By the time the agency showed up at National Beef’s slaughterhouse in Dodge City, Kan., in mid-May, three workers were already dead. After co-workers on both sides of her workstation got sick, Aleja Perez, a 56-year-old immigrant from Cuba, asked human resources if she could get tested for Covid-19. She was told she had to keep working if she had no symptoms, says her son, Yunier Santana. He urged her to stop, but she insisted on finishing the week. “The bonus was the only reason,” says Santana, who works as a truck driver.

U.S. Meat Plants Are Deadly as Ever, With No Incentive to Change

On March 16, National Beef Packing Co., a unit of Brazil’s Marfrig Global Foods SA that’s based in Kansas City, Mo., announced a temporary hazard bump of $2 an hour and, effective April 27, offered a $500 weekly bonus to any worker who took no time off—a pandemic raise, for perfect attendance, of almost 80%. Santana took Perez to the hospital on May 4 but was barred from entering and never saw his mother again. She died on May 6. Now he’s stuck with the medical bills, and no one from National Beef will take his calls.

The virus swept through the 2,700-worker plant, making Dodge City, and surrounding Ford County, the coronavirus capital of Kansas. On April 24, when three occupational-health experts from the CDC toured the plant to offer advice, they found that approximately 190 workers were out with Covid-19, 400 more were in home quarantine because of “close contact” with infected people, and 250 hadn’t shown up for work. The CDC issued an advisory report based on its tour and recommended that National Beef stop offering workers bonus pay based on attendance, but the company spurned the advice. National Beef did not respond to emailed questions.

U.S. Meat Plants Are Deadly as Ever, With No Incentive to Change

On May 13, after the company’s death toll hit three in Dodge City, OSHA Wichita Area Director Ryan Hodge made the 150-mile drive west to inspect the plant. More than 250 plant workers had already been sick with Covid-19. Hodge was in and out of the facility in less than 90 minutes, says Alfonso Figueroa, the United Food and Commercial Workers’ site rep, who accompanied the OSHA official inside the plant. A Labor Department spokesman confirmed that OSHA is investigating the deaths at the Dodge City plant but declined to comment on the open probes.

After injuries, deaths, or other serious incidents, OSHA inspectors can probe anything relevant to an investigation. But Hodge asked only to see the stations where the three deceased employees had worked. He showed no interest in the bathrooms, locker rooms, break areas, cafeteria, or any of the choke points on the plant’s fabrication line, where workers continue to practically rub shoulders, Figueroa says. “It seemed like just a casual visit, considering three people had died,” the union rep says. “He was content with what he saw and left.”

Hodge paused to ask a few questions on the kill floor, where beef carcasses, still warm, are sawed in half. It was there that Perez had worked removing tags from the animals’ tongues. Hodge noted that her workstation was only about 4 feet from another worker’s. A plant manager promised to install a barrier between the positions, which still hadn’t been done two weeks later, Figueroa says.

By the time OSHA got around to issuing guidance for meat plants, it was late April. The document, developed jointly with the CDC, recommended reconfiguring workspaces to allow for 6 feet of distance “if feasible,” but set no hard rules. National Beef installed stainless-steel and Plexiglas barriers between work stations, which the CDC says should not replace 6-foot worker distancing. The heavy plastic actually makes it more difficult to breathe, workers at multiple plants say, especially as noxious fumes from the assembly line get trapped more easily.

Even with fewer workers coming in, the plant denied union requests to slow down the line to accommodate less manpower—it still processes 390 cattle per hour, a decline of just 7% from its normal run rate. Meanwhile, National Beef has extended the bonus pay through June, rejecting a union request to abide by CDC guidance and delink the extra money from attendance. “We still have a long way to go before our workers are safe,” says Martin Rosas, president of Local 2 of the UFCW. “We know OSHA isn’t serious about helping them. Unless someone out there starts holding these employers’ feet to the fire, they’ll never change.”

Historically, politicians and regulators have rewarded the industry with autonomy and lax regulations. As its labor supply dwindled, National Beef appealed to Kansas Secretary of Agriculture Mike Beam to muscle the union on its behalf. “Our request is that they hear from the Governor’s office about the importance and special responsibility of food production workers and to ask the Union to encourage its folks to continue to report for work,” Simon McGee, National Beef’s chief financial officer, wrote to Beam in an email.

In Nebraska, Governor Pete Ricketts directed departments not to release Covid-19 case statistics at meat plants, citing concerns about privacy and the quality of the data. Cattle production is the leading industry in the state, where cows outnumber humans 4 to 1 and license plates proudly boast that it’s “the beef state.” Among the donors who’ve supported Ricketts’s career are Tyson Foods Inc., Smithfield Foods Inc., and the Nebraska Cattlemen.

Across the country, politicians were facing similar decisions as illnesses and deaths were mounting. In Colorado, the public health director of Weld County, where Greeley is located, notified JBS in early April that 64% of the plant’s workers who’d tested positive for Covid-19 had worked while symptomatic and contagious. The JBS employees told health-care personnel that the plant had a culture of “work while sick” that included managers and supervisors, wrote the county’s public health chief, Mark Wallace. Wallace, who’d been on the job 20 years, abruptly retired in May after warning the Weld County Commission to slow down in reopening for business.

JBS, after lobbying the state to keep its plant open in Greeley, eventually shut down the facility for a two-week cleanse. “We chose this aggressive option to quarantine the entire workforce and stop any potential chain of infection,” a JBS spokesperson says.

The demographic makeup of meat industry workers may explain why some politicians side with companies over their employees. Meatpacking houses focus on “hiring vulnerable workers that they can put under their thumbs,” says UFCW7 President Kim Cordova, including older workers, refugees, women, and others who badly need jobs but are reluctant to speak up for themselves because of language barriers, immigration, or social status. This allows the “work while sick” culture to flourish. To keep the plant running, JBS Greeley has even pulled workers from halfway houses in the community, Cordova says. Asked about her allegation, JBS said it isn’t “aware of” any workers hired from halfway houses.

Politicians aren’t quick to take up the cause of meat industry employees, in part because it doesn’t serve them at the polls. The actual work of processing animal carcasses is hidden, tucked away in small towns and rural areas. Workers are often minorities and immigrants, who lack significant political representation. There are no exact statistics on how many undocumented or noncitizen workers are employed in the industry, but the nonprofit Food Empowerment Project found that 38% of meat processing workers were born outside the country.

Meanwhile, the industry is rife with scandal. The Department of Justice recently subpoenaed the nation’s four largest meatpackers in an antitrust probe: Beef prices have almost doubled over the past month, drawing the president’s attention.

For now, the most leverage to change these practices may lie with consumers. Over the past century, meat consumption has steadily increased, reaching $75.9 billion in sales in the past 52 weeks, according to data from Nielsen Corp. Over that same period, plant-based meat alternatives accounted for only $922 million in sales. A 2019 Barclays Plc report predicted it would take meat alternatives a decade to surpass 10% of the global meat market. The likelihood of a majority of Americans going meat-free, especially in an emergency, is low.

Factory-farmed meat is cheap. Ground beef at a farm stand sells for $8 a pound, double the national retail average, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. The small farm price is cheaper than a plant-based alternative, though: 16 ounces of Beyond Meat ground “beef” is $10. A rib-eye at a family farm can run as much as $27 a pound, nearly triple the average price at the grocery store. That single steak would amount to 18% of the average family’s weekly grocery bill, according to an analysis of BLS data from consumer expenditure surveys. For Americans without access to farm stands, factory-farmed meat is the only option, and it will come from one of the four megasuppliers. That concentration is key to the U.S.’s low-cost industry, says Stephen Koontz, an agricultural economist at Colorado State University.

Small players are trying to build cult followings to take on the Big Four, but with limited success. Jon McConaughy, a former Credit Suisse trader who founded Double Brook Farm in Hopewell, N.J., in 2011, seeks to create an antidote to the problems of industrial agriculture. McConaughy calls his farm “vertically integrated, closed-loop”—it grows vegetables, grains, and fruits that nourish its turkeys, chickens, ducks, cows, sheep, pigs, and goats. Their waste fertilizes the fields where the crops are grown. Two-thirds of the farm’s food is sold on-site at the Brick Farm Market, and the rest is served to diners at the Brick Farm Tavern and Taste Café.

McConaughy also has his own slaughterhouse on the farm—nearly unheard of in the U.S. these days. It took five years of maneuvering and $450,000 to build, but once a week two butchers kill and cut up Double Brook Farm’s four-legged livestock, totaling some 1,200 U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified carcasses a year. (The 22,000 birds are slaughtered elsewhere.) Having his own slaughterhouse addresses a multitude of ills, McConaughy says. It avoids trucking livestock and processed meat thousands of miles to and from massive, centralized slaughterhouses, which are located far from population centers where people might object to their emissions and labor conditions.

Double Brook’s ground beef sells for $8 a pound, slightly more than at a nearby Whole Foods, which allows the farm to nearly break even and McConaughy to pay his workers a fair wage. One of his butchers earns $52,000 a year, while the other makes $18.50 per hour. Both work just under 40 hours a week. The typical wage of a meatpacking industry employee is $15 an hour, plus overtime. Many work up to 60 hours a week.

The pandemic has made a handful of consumers switch to local, ethically farmed meat products, but it’s unclear if those shopping patterns will persist after the headlines stop. McConaughy is hoping Covid-19 has opened people’s eyes to where their meat comes from. Ethical production “became important for sneakers and jeans and cellphones. Maybe it will for food,” he says.

The nation may now be experiencing a second wave of the virus outbreak, with case counts mounting in Texas, Arizona, and other red states where meatpacking is more common. On June 5, JBS’s Cactus location sent workers home with 10-pound boxes of chicken tenders. The state had 1,693 new Covid-19 cases that day.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.