Image via Shutterstock. Hog processing plant
Image via Shutterstock.

Meat plants are considered ‘critical infrastructure,’ but the virus’ spread raises labor concerns.

The next time you purchase a pound of ground beef or package of chicken breasts at the supermarket, consider this: The latest data show that at least 12,500 cases of COVID-19 have been linked to 174 meatpacking facilities in 30 states. 

North Carolina has 982 confirmed cases in meat processing plants and 12 counties: Bertie, Bladen, Chatham, Duplin, Lee, Lenoir, Richmond, Robeson, Sampson, Union, Wilkes and Wilson—and most remain operational thanks to an executive order that declared meat processing facilities “critical infrastructure” under the Defense Protection Act.

“Community members have expressed fear and concern about the high number of cases at work,” says Lariza Garzon, executive director of Episcopal Farmworker Ministry, a Dunn, N.C.-based nonprofit that provides services and support to migrant and seasonal farmworkers. “People are afraid to go to work and get sick, afraid to speak up about their concerns and afraid of losing their jobs…It is an extremely stressful and scary situation for them.”

RELATED: From The Editor: COVID-19 Is Ravaging NC Meat Plants. It’s Past Time For Cooper To Tell Us Where.

While companies like Perdue Farms, Smithfield Foods and Hormel Foods have closed several plants in other states due to high numbers of workers testing positive for the virus, almost all of the estimated 24 processing facilities with COVID-19 cases in North Carolina remain operational, according to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. (Tyson Foods closed its poultry plant in Wilkesboro for a deep cleaning earlier this month after 39 workers tested positive for COVID-19).

State officials issued guidelines for food processing facilities last month that included recommended sanitation practices and sufficient supplies of personal protective equipment such as gloves and face masks for workers.

“Keep me out of there until they guarantee they’re going to test people. Keep us 6 feet apart.”

Ella Ellerbe, a North Carolina worker at Smithfield Foods.

While the Centers for Disease Control note that there is no evidence that COVID-19 can be transmitted through food, the workers responsible for getting beef, chicken, bacon and other proteins to our plates face enormous risks from the virus.

“Workers report that different plants have been implementing different measures [but] some are reporting that their employers have changed their practices and are now trying to provide them with equipment and ways to maintain physical distance at work,” Garzon says. “They also report that physical distance in some parts of the plants is impossible due to the equipment that they have to use.” 

Lariza Garzon, executive director of Episcopal Farmworker Ministry

In an emailed statement, Smithfield Foods cited “an ongoing focus on employee health and safety and continued adherence with – at a minimum – the CDC and OSHA guidance. Across all its facilities, the company is providing its team members with [personal protective equipment], including masks and at least temporary face shields” in response to COVID-19 outbreaks.

The global company, which operates a slaughterhouse in Tar Heel that processes up to 35,000 hogs per day, declined to confirm the number of workers in its North Carolina facilities who have tested positive for the virus.

Butterball did not respond to requests for comment but a statement on its website notes that plants have enacted enhanced sanitation procedures, social distancing practices, body temperature screenings and provided face masks for all workers. 

Last week, during a virtual press conference organized by the North Carolina Justice Center, Gregoria, a worker at Case Farms in Morganton, said she was provided a single face mask that she was expected to use for several months. She left the plant in April due to fears about inadequate protections.

Ella Ellerbe, a worker at Smithfield, also spoke during the press conference, admitting that she did not feel safe at work. “Keep me out of there until they guarantee they’re going to test people,” Ellerbe added. “Keep us 6 feet apart, give us [personal protective equipment] and protect us.”

RELATED: NC’s Top Health Official On Naming COVID-19 Meat Plant Outbreaks: ‘Stay Tuned’

During the NC Justice Center call, Hunter Ogletree, co-director of the Western North Carolina Workers Center, called COVID-19, “a worker justice issue,” and noted that what workers are reporting from the frontlines does not match what companies have said about their efforts to protect workers and minimize the spread of the virus.

Even before COVID-19, working in meat processing plants was a dangerous proposition. The rates of illnesses and injuries are higher for those working in processing facilities than other industries. The facilities are often located in low-income communities and most of the workers who slaughter animals and break down carcasses are people of color, including high percentages of undocumented immigrants without health insurance.

“We are concerned about the high number of cases at the plants; many people don’t have insurance, many people won’t get paid if they miss work,” Garzon says. “The pandemic has created a mental health, physical health and financial crisis and low-income populations will take a long time to recover.”

The ever-increasing number of workers in North Carolina meat processing facilities who are testing positive for COVID-19 is just part of the concern, according to Garzon.

“When a worker gets sick, it is likely that their whole family gets sick too,” she explains. “The pandemic is highlighting the inequities and issues that workers and families were already facing. Essential workers deserve essential protections. They should not have to risk their lives to work and they should not work in fear.”