America’s meat processing operations have had to contend with some strong headwinds during the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps most notable among the challenges that meat and poultry companies like JBS, Cargill, Smithfield, and Tyson have faced during the crisis has been the safety of its workers.
As of February 23, 57,453 meatpacking workers in the US have contracted the virus, according to data gathered by the Food & Environment Reporting Network (FERN). 284 meatpacking workers have died from COVID-19. In comparison, FERN documented only 48 COVID deaths among American food processing workers during the same period.
The CDC issued a report in July 2020 stating that meat and poultry plants have a number of “distinctive factors” that increase workers’ risk of exposure to the coronavirus, like long periods of close contact with coworkers, common workspaces, and shared transportation.
Because the number of illnesses and deaths have been comparatively high in the meat industry, COVID-19 vaccination for meat and poultry workers has become a red-hot issue over the past several months. Industry stakeholders have pushed lawmakers to increase access to the vaccine for the meat industry. Several major meat industry players are now starting to vaccinate their manufacturing workforces.
Powder & Bulk Solids provides a look at how some of the biggest meat processing companies are implementing their COVID-19 vaccination programs and the role that industry organizations and lawmakers are playing in distributing the drugs and prioritizing access.
Industry Stakeholders Push for Vaccines
Protein industry trade group North American Meat Institute (NAMI) and the country’s largest union representing meat plant staff, The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), jointly sent a letter to all 50 governors in the US in late December requesting that state governments give “very high priority” to distributing COVID-19 vaccines to meat and poultry workers.
“Many meat and poultry establishments are top employers in rural communities that can experience challenges with access to adequate health care. Vaccinating meat and poultry workers will maximize the health of entire rural communities and increase health equity,” the organizations said in the letter.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently designates food and beverage manufacturing workers as “frontline essential workers,” and lists the food and beverage manufacturing industries under vaccination phase 1b. NAMI and UFCW asked state officials to prioritize vaccination of food and beverage plant staff within that phase.
“The entire country depends on meat and poultry workers to produce the food Americans need,” NAMI and WFCW wrote. “For these reasons we respectfully request that, as you plan for distributing the vaccine, meatpacking workers and USDA personnel in those establishments be given high priority to receive vaccinations.”
As phase 1b gets underway, how and when meatpacking workers are vaccinated differs from state to state. In turn, protein companies are individually developing their own vaccination schemes and starting to administer the shots in cooperation with local public health departments, medical experts, and labor unions.
Springdale, AR-based Tyson Foods debuted a long-term vaccination strategy in January because the availability of the drug differs by state. The company is teaming up with clinical services company Matrix Medical Network to administer the doses and provide education and counseling about the vaccine at Tyson’s US plants over this year.
COVID-19 vaccines will be provided to Tyson workers for free. Tyson recently announced that it is paying workers for up to four hours of regular wages if they get a vaccine dose outside of their shift or through a non-company source.
“This incentive is an additional way we can encourage our frontline workers to receive the vaccination, which we believe is another important protective measure,” said Johanna Söderström, executive vice president and chief human resources officer for Tyson Foods. “We’re ready to vaccinate more of our people, especially through the free, on-site vaccination program we’ve developed, however, vaccine availability continues to vary by state.”
Several hundred Tyson Foods workers have been vaccinated as of mid-February, and the company anticipates that another 1,000 staff members in Illinois, Missouri, and Virginia will receive doses this month, the company said.
Beef and pork processor JBS USA and poultry products firm Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation said in late January that a $100 incentive bonus will be provided to workers who receive a COVID-19 vaccine to encourage staff to participate the companies’ vaccination program.
“Our goal in offering this extra pay to our team members is to remove any barriers to vaccination and incentivize our team members to protect themselves,” JBS USA chief executive officer Andre Nogueira stated in a release on the introduction of incentive. “With nearly 66,000 US team members, we are hopeful this initiative will lead to high vaccination participation rates that will benefit our workforce and the rural communities and cities in which they live and work across America.”
On February 12, JBS USA announced that about 700 of its workers at its pork production facility in Beardstown, IL were administered the Pfizer vaccine. The plant’s staff “were enthusiastic to be vaccinated,” according to the company, and the entire allotment of doses provided by local public health authorities was used. JBS described the effort as “the largest vaccination effort to date at a red meat facility.”
Poultry processor Foster Farms announced the launch of its vaccination program this month. About 1,000 workers at its poultry plant in Fresno, CA are slated to receive the Moderna COVID vaccine. To accomplish the task, the company is working with the county’s public health department and Vons Pharmacy.
“Foster Farms hopes this program will serve as a model for vaccination at other company facilities and for the entire California food processing industry,” Foster Farms stated in a release announcing the effort at the California site.
The Fresno County Department of Public Health said the vaccination program at Foster Farm’s Fresno plant will allow officials to learn how to implement vaccination clinics at worksites, use new communication strategies, give the vaccine in different workplace settings, and gain a better understanding of vaccine uptake.
It is unclear when the company expects to provide vaccines to workers at other production facilities in its network.
The Road Ahead
While the meat industry starts to vaccinate its workforce, the road ahead may have some bumps and potholes. For one, it is uncertain how many meatpacking workers will opt for vaccination. Managers of the Lincoln Premium Poultry plant in Fremont, NE told PBS and NPR affiliate NetNebraska that only 40% of the facility’s workers want to receive a dose.
Trepidation about side effects or concerns about the effectiveness of the vaccines may lead some meatpacking to decline the doses they are offered. Companies and public health officials will have to work to combat disinformation or negative perceptions about the drugs in order to drive higher participation. Financial incentives, like paid bonuses, may prove to be successful in encouraging workers to receive their doses, but it will take time to see if this approach is effective or not.
Vaccination programs may also hit a roadblock if there are interruptions in the vaccine supply chain or securing enough doses in vaccine allocations from state and county public health departments. Another area of potential concern is that smaller meat processing operations may have more difficulties gaining access to vaccine doses compared with larger companies with more resources like Tyson. Workers in certain states or locations may be at a disadvantage, depending on local supplies and regulations.
As the pandemic’s challenges evolve – from new variants to shifting recommendations and regulations – it is clear that it will take close cooperation between meat companies, trade organizations, regulators, and other stakeholders to ensure the success of these efforts.