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Meatpackers Panned For Lack Of Transparency During Pandemic


Meatpacking plants across the Mountain West and the country are under intense scrutiny as they continue to face COVID-19 outbreaks.

Click 'play' to hear the audio version of this story.

More than 37,000 meatpacking employees have been infected by COVID-19 and more than 160 have died, according to the Food and Environment Reporting Network. But that data primarily comes from local news reports "with additional information gathered from state health authorities and, on occasion, from companies with outbreaks."

Major meatpackers like Tyson Foods, JBS, Cargill and Smithfield Foods rarely reveal that data.

"Yeah, it's largely a blackbox unfortunately," said Nicole Civita, an instructor and sustainable food systems specialization lead at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Civita blames major consolidation and growing power within the companies for why they have to report so little about their workforce or even environmental impacts.

The meatpackers didn't provide information to Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker either, as they investigated whether the companies have used the pandemic as cover to exploit workers for profit and/or fix prices.

Last week, Warren and Booker said the companies' actions illustrate the need for "enforceable and mandatory health and safety protections for essential workers, real investigation and enforcement by OSHA, and long-term reform of our food system."

Meatpacking workers have sued the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, claiming the agency's inaction left them in danger.

Meanwhile, both the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are investigating whether the same companies colluded to artificially boost beef prices as COVID-19 disrupted the market, potentially harming both consumers and ranchers.

Nicole Huberfeld, a professor of health law, ethics and human rights at Boston University, said the pandemic has put us in uncharted waters when it comes to privacy and companies: how much information should we require for private institutions to report during a public health crisis?

"It's one thing for a public health agency to disseminate information because that's its responsibility," Huberfeld said. "It's another thing to look at corporations and say, 'Well, you have a responsibility to dissemination information.' They don't."

Huberfeld argues that meatpacking and other food processing plants must be more accountable to their employees and their health, though.

"Seems to me that these are national corporations that should be dealt with on the national level, which means Congress needs to act to ensure that they understand what their duties are to their employees," she said.

Huberfeld isn't convinced Congress will act, and so instead points to legal mechanisms involving employees and employee families suing over COVID-19 infections and deaths. That sort of legal action could face new hurdles, though, as Senate majority leader Mitch McConnel is insisting on legal protections for companies like meatpacking plants so they can't be sued for those outbreaks.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2020 Boise State Public Radio News

Madelyn Beck is a regional Illinois reporter, based in Galesburg. On top of her work for Harvest Public Media, she also contributes to WVIK, Tri-States Public Radio and the Illinois Newsroom collaborative.
Madelyn Beck
Madelyn Beck is Boise State Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. She's from Montana but has reported everywhere from North Dakota to Alaska to Washington, D.C. Her last few positions included covering energy resources in Wyoming and reporting on agriculture/rural life issues in Illinois.
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