Tyson Foods is one of three major meat processors targeted in a congressional probe regarding COVID-19 outbreaks last year in meatpacking facilities. The U.S. House panel will investigate whether Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods and JBS USA enforced proper worker safety guidelines with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) oversight.
The letters sent Monday (Feb. 1) to the meatpackers from the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis asks the companies to document the number of employees who tested positive for COVID-19, plant closures, safety measures and leave policies in response to the outbreaks by Feb. 15. The letter states almost 54,000 workers among 569 meatpacking plants tested positive for COVID-19, resulting in at least 270 deaths. Of those deaths, 38 were among workers at Tyson plants.
The federal probe is led by U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., who claims the companies refused to take basic precautions to protect their workers and showed callous disregard for worker safety amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“These actions appear to have resulted in thousands of meatpacking workers getting infected with the virus and hundreds dying. Outbreaks at meatpacking plants have also spread to surrounding communities, killing many more Americans,” Clyburn noted.
Clyburn also claims OSHA has been lax in plant oversight regarding the COVID-19 crisis, issuing just 8 citations against meatpacking plants for COVID-19-related violations.
Tyson Foods has said it was ordered to remain open by executive orders from former President Donald Trump and in so doing worked with health and federal regulators to operate those plants according to the guidelines provided by regulators. OSHA issued new workforce safety guidelines on virus protection to meatpacking plants on Jan. 29.
Tyson Foods provided the following statement to Talk Business & Politics about the probe.
“Our top priority will always be the health and safety of our people, and we look forward to working with the congressional committee to share what we’ve done and continue to do to protect our team members from the coronavirus. We’ve invested more than half a billion dollars during the pandemic to transform our U.S. facilities with protective measures, from walk-through temperature scanners and workstation dividers to social distance monitors and additional team member pay and benefits. In addition, we’ve added a Chief Medical Officer to help us safeguard and improve the health of our workforce. We’re also using random testing as a tool to find the virus, testing thousands of workers a week, both symptomatic and asymptomatic. This strategy has enabled us to move from defense to offense in our efforts to fight the virus.”
Tyson Foods is being sued by the families of at least six workers who died from COVID-19 last year amid plant outbreaks in Iowa and Illinois. The company recently fired seven plant leaders in Waterloo, Iowa, after learning the plant officials hedged bets on who would get sick from COVID-19. Tyson Foods said the plant leaders were terminated after an independent investigation into the allegations.
North American Meat Institute defends the packers saying the industry has spent more than $1.5 billion on targeted protections for COVID-19 since early 2020. Tyson Foods has said it spent $540 million in direct COVID-19 related costs in 2020 and it expects another $300 million to spend this year.