Meat companies concede that not all plant workers can socially distance

Smithfield Foods says that workers cannot be socially distant in all areas of its plants after US Senate testimony.
calendar icon 27 July 2020
clock icon 4 minute read

Smithfield Foods, the world's biggest pork processor, said workers cannot be socially distant in all areas of its plants, in response to US senators who pressed mea tpackers on coronavirus outbreaks in slaughterhouses.

Reuters reports that meat packers are under mounting pressure to protect workers after more than 16,000 employees in 23 states were infected with COVID-19. A CDC report released earlier in July showed that 86 workers died in circumstances related to the COVID-19 respiratory disease.

Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker last month said Smithfield, Tyson Foods Inc, JBS USA and Cargill Inc had put workers in harm's way to maintain production. The senators asked the companies, who process poultry, pork and beef, how much meat they shipped to China while warning of domestic shortages due to slaughterhouse outbreaks.

Smithfield, in a 30 June response made public on Friday, said it erected physical barriers and took other steps to protect workers in areas where social distancing is impossible.

The company, owned by China's WH Group Ltd, balked at slowing processing line speeds to increase space between employees. It said slowdowns would back up hogs and cattle on farms, leading to animal euthanisations and higher food prices.

"For better or worse, our plants are what they are," Smithfield Chief Executive Kenneth Sullivan said. "Four walls, engineered design, efficient use of space, etc. Spread out? Okay. Where?"

Tyson told the senators it decreased the number of employees on production lines and created barriers or required face shields in areas where employees cannot be distanced.

"These companies clearly cannot be trusted to do what is right," said Booker. He and Warren called for new legislation to protect workers.

Smithfield, Tyson and JBS did not disclose how much meat they have exported. JBS, a unit of Brazil's JBS SA, said it accounted for less than 10 percent of US pork exports to China. Cargill said it has not exported US beef or turkey to China this year.

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