What NOT To Do When You Go Back to Work. A Lesson from Meat Processing Plants

Coronavirus spread as workers wore no masks and were unable to keep a safe distance from each other

 This article appeared previously on engineering.com and has been republished.
 At the fabrication line, workers are packed in elbow-to-elbow to cut meat. (Image courtesy of CBC News.)

Too close for comfort. Conveyor belts bring large pieces of meat to workers standing elbow-to-elbow. (Image courtesy of CBC News.)

If you got uneasy about your supply of toilet paper, you will panic when you hear
what is happening to meat production. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused such a major disruption in meat processing, forcing the closing of one meat processing plant after another, that if it were to keep up, we will be on the brink of an all-out meat

Over the course of months starting in April, dozens of meat packaging plants across North America have experienced temporary shutdowns due to coronavirus outbreaks among employees. Shortfalls in the meat supply are already happening. Fast food chain Wendy’s, which boasts of only using fresh beef in its hamburgers, is running out at nearly a fifth of its 1,043 U.S. locations. Supermarket chains such as Kroger, Costco, Albertsons and Hy-Vee are limiting the amount of fresh meat purchases that consumers can make at their stores. Industry experts are predicting that the shutdown of meat processing facilities could prompt another round of hoarding at grocery stores.

“As pork, beef and chicken plants are being forced to close, even for short periods of time, millions of pounds of meat will disappear from the supply chain,” says John Tyson, Chairman of Tyson Foods, in a full-page ad published by The Washington Post. “The food supply chain is breaking.”

Kenneth M. Sullivan, CEO of Smithfield Foods, similarly cautions that the United States is “perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply.”

Around 20 major U.S. meat processing plants have closed during the past few weeks, cutting U.S. beef and pork production by about 35% from the same period last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Agricultural lender CoBank estimates that chicken production has fallen by 7%, while USDA figures show that 935,000 fewer cattle, hogs and sheep were sent to meat processing plants within one week when compared with the same time last year.

USDA weekly report for May 4, 2020. (Picture courtesy of USDA.)

USDA weekly report for May 4, 2020. (Picture courtesy of USDA.)

Decades of consolidation within the U.S. meat industry have given outsize importance to a relatively small number of meat processing plants, which have the capacity to slaughter more than a million animals a year. These massive plants typically process about 3,000 to 4,000 animals a day, in contrast to local meat producers who can only process 10 to 20. It is estimated that a little more than 50 plants are responsible for as much as 98 percent of slaughtering and processing in the United States.

Due to the shutdowns of these large-scale meat packaging factories, farmers are being left with a surplus of livestock which they cannot afford to process, house, or feed. The situation has already led to mass cullings on farms. Delmarva Poultry Industry in Maryland and Delaware was one of the first producers forced to euthanize 2 million of their chickens in early April. In Iowa—the biggest pork-producing state in the U.S.—farmer Al Van Beek had no choice but to individually inject pregnant sows in order to abort 7,500 piglets that were expected from his breeding operation. Minnesota farmers Kerry and Barb Mergen had to kill 61,000 laying hens because they were unable to get them processed by Daybreak Foods.

According to a report published by CoBank, U.S. hog producers may be forced to cull up to 7 million pigs in the second quarter of 2020. Iowa’s political leaders warn that the numbers could be as high as 700,000 pigs a week.
All told, the pandemic will result in the loss of millions of chickens, pigs and cattle, further reducing meat supplies.

How Many Meat Processing Plants Have Been Affected By COVID-19?

According to data aggregated from 19 states, the Centers for Disease and Control (CDC) have found coronavirus cases in 115 U.S. meat processing plants. Among 130,578 employees at these factories, 4,913 workers have tested positive and 20 deaths have occurred.

CDC data showing meat processing facilities affected by COVID-19. (Image courtesy of CDC.)

CDC data showing meat processing facilities affected by COVID-19. (Image courtesy of CDC.)

The tally is even higher in data compiled by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, which states, “As of May 10, there have been at least 12,500 reported positive cases tied to meatpacking facilities in at least 174 plants in 30 states, and at least 51 reported worker deaths at 27 plants in 18 states.”

Affected U.S. meat plants include:

  • Tyson Foods (Logansport, Indiana and Wallula, Washington), with 1020 employees testing positive.
  • Smithfield Foods (Sioux Falls, South Dakota), with 853 employees testing positive.
  • JBS (Worthington, Minnesota), with 239 employees testing positive.
  • Wayne Farms (Albertville, Alabama), with 75 employees testing positive.

The coronavirus outbreaks are not limited to meat processing plants in the United States. In Canada, the Cargill plant in High River, Alberta closed down after 949 employees tested positive and 2 deaths occurred – representing the largest COVID-19 outbreak linked to a single facility in North America. Alberta’s second-largest outbreak occurred at the JBS Canada beef plant in the city of Brooks. Meat plants in Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia also had to temporarily suspend operations because of COVID-19 outbreaks.

How is COVID-19 spreading in these factories?

Workers involved in meat processing are at increased risk of exposure to COVID-19 due to the congregate nature of their work environments.

According to qualitative data gathered by the CDC from facility risk assessments, structural and operational practices make it difficult for employees to maintain a 6-foot distance while working, especially on processing lines. Other factors that substantially contribute to exposure include physical distancing challenges when clocking in/out, sharing transportation in shuttle vehicles, and grouping together during crowded breaks.

“We are all given bathroom breaks at the same time and there are hundreds of us waiting to use them,” revealed one Tyson Foods employee at a Springdale plant in Arkansas. “There are only seven bathrooms.”

Due to shortages in surgical and N95 masks, personal protective equipment in some factories has come in the form of beard nets, which do not offer protection from airborne particles. Furthermore, some sites have been observed to have difficulty adhering to recommended disinfection guidelines for reducing COVID-19 transmission.

Another challenge is socioeconomic. Employees may report to work despite feeling ill, under pressure from problematic medical leave policies and bonuses that incentivize attendance. For example, employees at Smithfield and Tyson Foods may feel obliged to work while experiencing symptoms, due to $500 attendance bonuses which reward workers for completing their shifts through the end of the month.

According to a report by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) labor union, the USDA approved 11 regulatory waivers within the first two weeks of April in order for poultry plants to increase their maximum line speed. As these waivers cause employees to rush production, they put workers at a higher risk of transmitting COVID-19. In order to guarantee employee safety and preserve facility function, UFCW is calling for the suspension of all existing waivers and a halt to any new waivers that allow plants to operate at faster speeds.

The COVID-19 cases don’t stop at the meat-processing workers. Over 100 U.S. federal employees responsible for inspecting meat plants have also tested positive for COVID-19, and at least two inspector deaths have occurred. The situation adds to concerns that a sick inspector may transmit infections from a COVID-infected facility to one which has not yet experienced an outbreak.

Meat processing has been declared an essential service, and factories are beginning to reopen. What guidelines should meat plants implement when moving forward with manufacturing?

Based on their assessments of coronavirus cases in meat plants, CDC have teamed up with OSHA to release a joint COVID-related guidance document which outlines recommended actions for meat-processing employers and workers. The document includes information regarding:

  • Cleaning of shared meat processing tools
  • Screening workers before they enter facilities
  • Managing employees who are showing symptoms of COVID-19
  • Implementing appropriate engineering, administrative, and work practice controls
  • Using appropriate PPE
  • Practicing social distancing at the workplace

Table outlining observed challenges in COVID-19 prevention and control, and recommended changes in facility practice. (Image courtesy of CDC.)

Table outlining observed challenges in COVID-19 prevention and control, and recommended changes in facility practice. (Image courtesy of CDC.)

Improvements in engineering controls involve configuring communal work environments so that workers are at least six feet apart in all directions, i.e. side-to-side or when facing each other. It is ideal to modify the alignment of workstations so that workers do not face each other. Impermeable physical dividers such as strip curtains or plexiglass are recommended for separating workers from one another.

Recommendations for alignment of workstations. (Image courtesy of CDC.)

Recommendations for alignment of workstations. (Image courtesy of CDC.)

Another important consideration is a robust airborne control program. According to the CDC’s guidance document, facilities should consult with heating, ventilation and air conditioning engineers to ensure adequate ventilation in work areas. In facilities where pedestal or hard-mounted fans are being used, steps should be taken to minimize air blowing from one worker to another. If fans are removed, heat hazards should be taken into account.

Sanitization must be prioritized, and protocols should be established for increasing the frequency of disinfection. List N on EPA’s website classifies disinfectants that have qualified under EPA’s emerging viral pathogens program for use against COVID-19.

Appropriate PPE is essential to protect workers from hazards such as splashes/sprays of liquids on production lines or disinfectants used for cleaning. Employers should supply workers with face shields, N95 masks and facepiece respirators—even if such respirators are not normally required for meat processing operations.

As for administrative controls related to workplace social distancing, the CDC has a number of recommendations to reduce crowding of workers. In addition to installing more clock in/out stations and staggering shift/break times, one suggested change involves the cohorting of workers. Cohorting ensures that groups of workers are always assigned to the same shifts with the same coworkers, hence reducing COVID-19 transmission by minimizing the number of different individuals who come into close contact with one another.

Throughout the implementation of these measures, appropriate training should be provided to all workers in accordance with their literacy levels and preferred languages. As an example, the workforce at Smithfield Foods is largely made up of immigrants and refugees, and 80 different languages are spoken at the plant.

A coronavirus poster in Haitian Creole. (Picture courtesy of CDC.)

A coronavirus poster in Haitian Creole. (Picture courtesy of CDC.)

Long-term considerations for meat plants

Many meat plants may need to be retrofitted. Most meat facilities with COVID-19 issues have been in operation for decades, with patchwork and provisional operating solutions. According to Business in Vancouver, all Canadian plants that are less than 10 years old have successfully avoided COVID-19—indicating that modern infrastructure can play a significant preventive role. Many European plants have also been spared the coronavirus because of automation, robotics and modern maintenance.

However, it should be noted that automation processes can be challenging for the following reasons:

  • Meat is not firm and changes shape when processed, making it harder to apply robotics or other mechanical approaches to plant operations.
  • Meat is non-uniform, i.e. each carcass is unique, so achieving precise and consistent cuts is difficult.
  • Waste is so expensive (especially in beef) that machines must reach accuracies of over 99.5%.

Predictions for the future of meat

Based on the high volume of meat processed by many North American facilities, any temporary closures can rapidly have a huge effect on the meat supply chain. For example, a shutdown of a single large beef processing plant can result in the loss of over 10 million individual servings of beef a day. According to Global Meat News, a report published by CoBank has suggested that meat supply to U.S. stores could be reduced by as much as 30 percent by the end of May.

As for cold-storage stocks, frozen beef supplies are estimated to cover just under a week of demand, while frozen pork supplies are expected to last for 1.5 weeks.

Glynn Tonsor, professor at Kansas State University’s Department of Agricultural Economics, feels that things will start to improve by June as meat processing plants find ways to operate effectively in the COVID-19 environment. Conversely, David Anderson, professor and extension economist at Texas A&M University’s Department of Agricultural Economics, warns that meat supply issues could linger for over a year as facilities struggle to keep production lines moving in the midst of the pandemic.

In the meantime, trends show an increased interest in cultivated meat, which is produced through a process where animal cells are grown in a separate environment outside the animal. Cargill, the world’s largest meat company (and one of the most severely impacted by COVID), is already a significant investor in the largest cultivated meat start-up, Memphis Meats.

Some industry experts also predict that the COVID-19 pandemic may help drive the growth of plant-based meat products such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat burger patties. With even Tyson Foods taking the leap into lab-based meat and plant-based protein with their Raised & Rooted brand, it may just be a matter of time before we seek to fulfil our meat cravings through plant-based alternatives.