Protein products producer Tyson Foods has become the first major American food and beverage firm to require all of its employees receive vaccination for COVID-19. The move comes as the Delta variant of the virus forces manufacturers to rethink its safety strategies as infections increase, particularly among the unvaccinated.
“Getting vaccinated against COVID-19 is the single most effective thing we can do to protect our team members, their families, and their communities,” Tyson’s chief medical officer Dr. Claudia Coplein said in a release announcing the mandate Tuesday. “With rapidly rising COVID-19 case counts of contagious, dangerous variants leading to increasing rates of severe illness and hospitalization among the US unvaccinated population, this is the right time to take the next step to ensure a fully vaccinated workforce.”
While Tyson is requiring its US office workers to get the jab by October 1, its manufacturing staff and other workers have a deadline of November 1 to receive the vaccine as the company discusses the plan with unions who represent workers at certain locations.
United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), a union representing some 24,000 Tyson meatpacking workers, expressed concerns with the protein giant’s initiative in a statement issued in response to Tyson’s announcement.
“While we support and encourage workers getting vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus, and have actively encouraged our members to do so, it is concerning that Tyson is implementing this mandate before the FDA has fully approved the vaccine,” the organization wrote. “As the union for Tyson meatpacking workers, UFCW has made clear that this vaccine mandate must be negotiated so that these workers will have a voice in the new policy.”
Union officials will meet with Tyson officials over the next several weeks to discuss the company’s plan.
In addition to addressing the developments at Tyson, UFCW’s statement also called on the FDA to fully approve the vaccines and “help address some of the questions and concerns that workers have.”
What Does This Mean for Food Manufacturers?
The concerns expressed by the union – whose members include about 250,000 food processing and meatpacking workers – are likely to weigh heavily on food manufacturing operations as they decide whether to issue similar COVID-19 vaccination mandates.
Among all segments of the food industry, meat processing firms like Tyson are perhaps the most likely to create COVID-19 vaccine mandates as protein facilities have been particularly prone to large numbers of infections and faced days or weeks of shutdowns due to outbreaks among staff over the course of the pandemic. JBS was fined by the US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in September 2020 for failing to protect workers at its Swift Beef Company facility in Greeley, CO from exposure to the coronavirus.
As vaccines became more widely available, protein firms started offering a number of incentives – from cash bonuses to additional time off – to encourage their workforce to get the shot.
Bearing these experiences in mind, Powder & Bulk Solids expects to see more vaccine mandates among the top meat processing companies in the US. It is unclear if other areas of food and beverage manufacturing will adopt these measures or utilize other tactics to combat the spread of the Delta variant. Now that Tyson has set a precedent within the industry, it is entirely possible that some of the country’s biggest food and beverage producers, like PepsiCo and Kraft Heinz, will issue similar requirements for their workforces.