Meat Packers Accelerated Spread of COVID-19, Study Says

New research published by the National Academy of Sciences ties livestock meat packing plants to 6% to 8% of U.S. COVID-19 cases, and 3% to 4% of the deaths through late July.

The authors said the data show “a strong positive relationship” between meatpacking plants and “local community transmission,” suggesting the plants act as “transmission vectors” and “accelerate the spread of the virus.”

Researchers at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business found that the risk of excess death primarily came from large meatpacking plants operated by industry giants. Communities that acted to shut down slaughterhouses reduced spread, according to the researchers.

In a statement, the North American Meat Institute said, "Meat and poultry companies continue to invest, more than $1 billion so far, in significant changes and improvements regarding COVID-19 prevention and control practices to protect the men and women who work in their facilities. By limiting the data examined to July 21, 2020, the article does not evaluate the complete timeline of information. The authors fail to capture the downward trend of positive cases associated with the meat and poultry industry into the summer and fall, especially in contrast to the positive cases reaching new highs around the nation.

"Significantly, even the authors suggest caution, saying 'The best we can do here is provide an unusually broad array of observational evidence' and that they do not want to 'overstate the hardness of our method.'  The timeline limitations, coupled with those cautions, should give pause to drawing any conclusions."   

The peer-reviewed study was published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S.

The researchers called the COVID-19 pandemic a public health and economic crisis in which policymakers face tradeoffs between maintaining essential economic activities and mitigating disease spread. President Trump issued an executive order on April 28 directing meatpackers to reopen closed facilities.

“Our study suggests that, among essential industries, livestock processing poses a particular public health risk extending far beyond meatpacking companies and their employees,” the authors wrote.

The study estimated packing plants were associated with 236,000 to 310,000 COVID-19 cases and 4,300 to 5,200 deaths by July 21.

“The vast majority” of those cases were “likely related to community spread outside these plants,” the researchers wrote. The authors suggested an investigation into supply chains, operating procedures and labor relations within the meatpacking industry.

The researchers also found plants that received waivers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to increase their production-line speeds had relatively more county-wide cases.

“Ensuring both public health and robust essential supply chains may require an increase in meatpacking oversight and potentially a shift toward more decentralized, smaller-scale meat production,” the study concluded.



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