• Beef and pork production last week was higher than the comparable week in 2019
  • Overall meat production is just 2% below last year's level
  • Meatpacking workers still are falling ill from coronavirus despite safety measures taken by companies

U.S. meat production, upended earlier this year by the coronavirus pandemic, which shuttered meatpacking plants around the country, has rebounded to near-normal levels, Agriculture Department figures show, but workers still are getting sick.

In a report released Monday, the USDA reported beef and pork production last week was higher than the comparable week in 2019, with year-to-date figures virtually even. Total meat production for the first five months of the year was just 2% below last year’s figures, 22 billion pounds this year compared to 22.4 billion last year, a difference of 395.2 million pounds.

The pandemic forced the closure of numerous meatpacking plants in March and April as workers contracted COVID-19. But President Trump ordered all meatpacking operations to reopen April 28, saying the nation’s protein supply chain was in jeopardy.

The industry, which employs 194,000 frontline workers and 585,000 overall, is controlled mainly by four companies: JBS, Smithfield, Tyson (TSN) and Cargill. Workers have little leverage, however, because union contracts are specific to individual plants, meaning a strike at one plant just means production will shift to another plant, with contractors handling some of the work.

With the pandemic surging across the Sunbelt, fears were rising of a new wave of sickness among meatpacking plant workers, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which represents poultry plant workers, told the Journal workers don’t feel the situation has improved even though the industry has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on safety measures. Tyson Foods, the nation’s largest meat processor, set up clinics at its facilities and still, cases exploded, the Washington Post reported.

“No one is forced to come to work and we clearly communicate to our team members to stay home if they do not feel well,” JBS spokesman Cameron Bruett told the Chicago Tribune.

The Food & Environment Reporting Network counted more than 32,000 coronavirus cases and 109 deaths from COVID-19 among meatpacking workers, but the numbers likely are higher because of the industry’s reluctance to share data and unreliable state figures. Outbreaks have been reported at 249 plants, amounting to 65% of all recorded food sector cases, the network said.

“The ongoing spread of COVID-19 among food-sector workers has contributed to rising infection rates in many rural communities, even as major metropolitan areas see the virus’ spread abating. Analysis by FERN and Daily Yonder found that, in rural communities with meatpacking plants that have had COVID-19 outbreaks, the infection rate is five times higher on average than in other rural counties,” the network said on its website.

The site also noted the infection rate among meatpacking plant workers far outstrips rates among both farmworkers and food processing workers.

The Center for Economic and Policy Research noted the vast majority of meatpacking workers are immigrants or members of minority groups, doing “dangerous work, even in the best of times, and are poorly compensated for it.” Half of meatpacking workers are Hispanic and 25% are Black, the center said. More than half are immigrants.