Recent research findings from the National Academy of Sciences of the United States suggest that livestock processing plants were associated with 236,000 to 310,000 COVID-19 cases, or 6% to 8% of the total cases early in the pandemic. Additionally, the research suggests that 4,300 to 5,200 COVID-19 related deaths could be tied back to livestock processing plants, or 3% to 4% of the total deaths as of July 21.

And many of these COVID-19 cases and deaths occurred among people who, themselves, were not working at the livestock processing plants.

Increase in COVID-19 in communities

The researchers, Charles Taylor of Columbia University, and Christopher Boulos and Douglas Almond of the University of Chicago, considered plant size, industrial concentration, plant shutdowns and policy actions in their study into community spread of the virus.

“Our results indicate a strong positive relationship between livestock processing plants and local community transmission of COVID-19, suggesting that these plants may act as transmission vectors into the surrounding population and accelerate the spread of the virus beyond what would be predicted solely by population risk characteristics,” the authors stated.

“In addition, we find evidence that plant closures attenuated county-wide cases and that plants that received permission from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to increase their production line speeds saw more county-wide cases,” the authors stated.

The research used county-level data available as of July 21. The researchers found that the presence of a slaughter plant in a county was associated with four to six additional COVID-19 cases per thousand, or a 51% to 75% increase from the baseline rate.

 “We also find an increase in the death rate by 0.07 to 0.1 deaths per thousand people, or 37% to 50% over the baseline rate,” the authors wrote. For every one worker infected at a livestock plant, between seven to eight local non-workers were ultimately infected by the end of the sample period, the report stated.

Concentration adds to situation

The situation is complicated, of course, because large plants disrupted by COVID-19 created choke points in the supply chain, further disrupting livestock sale prices to producers, causing retail food shortages, and creating substantial economic losses. The four largest beef, pork and poultry processors in the U.S. account for 55% to 85% of their respective markets. With fewer and larger plants, today just 12 plants produce more than 50% of U.S. beef and 12 other plants produce more than 50% of U.S. pork. The researchers found the relationship between livestock plants and COVID-19 transmission to be greatest among the largest plants. Those counties with the largest plants within their borders saw a 35% higher COVID-19 case rate.

Early in the pandemic, updated safety guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention helped plants stay open as critical infrastructure for national security. President Donald Trump signed an executive order that mandated processing plants stay open considering their affect on the nation’s food supply.

Within the plants themselves, the researchers cited potential risk factors for passing respiratory viruses among workers. The list includes:

• Long work shifts in close proximity to coworkers;

• Difficulty in maintaining proper face covering because of the physicality of the work;

• Shared transportation among workers;

• Low temperatures that increase COVID-19 risk; and

• Workers’ socioeconomic status and labor practices that may contribute to infection transmission.

“Among front-line meat processing workers in the United States, 45% are categorized as low income, 80% are people of color, and 52% are immigrants, many of whom are undocumented and lack ready access to healthcare and other worker protections that could facilitate COVID-19 prevention and treatment,” the study’s authors wrote. Additionally, employees were incentivized to continue working while sick through company policies on medical leave, and with attendance bonuses, according to the study.

The researchers offered up data from Kansas as an example of the role of livestock processing in community spread of COVID-19.

As of July 20, a total of 3,200 of the 23,300 state cases that had been reported (or 14%) were directly linked to meatpacking.

“For context, there are 17,200 employees in the animal slaughtering industry in Kansas, or 0.6% of the state’s population,” the authors wrote.

Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or jlatzke@hpj.com.

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