“Essential employees” kept the economy from totally tanking during the past year, often leaving the impression that the coronavirus made these jobs among the most dangerous.   

Meat and poultry production plant work, especially in spring of 2020, was seen as among the most dangerous as localized outbreaks caused temporary closures because of high rates of infections and deaths.

With the pandemic marking its first anniversary, the longer view is offering a new perspective. Operators in the meat and poultry industries say the adjustments they made turned their facilities into safer places to work than most.

They point to independent data that show that COVID-19 infection rates among meat and poultry workers are more than five times lower than the general U.S. population and 95 percent lower than the industry’s peak case rates in May 2020.

Date from the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN) shows the meat and poultry sector had an average of just 4.81 new reported cases per 100,000 workers per day in February 2021, compared with 26.15 cases per 100,000 people in the general U.S. population.

“Nearly one year after the first reported COVID-19 cases in the sector, we are grateful that comprehensive measures instituted since spring 2020 continue to protect our dedicated workers,” said Julie Anna Potts, president and CEO of the North American Meat Institute. 

“Vaccination supplies have so far been limited, but we urge the federal and state governments to rapidly expand vaccine access for the long-term protection of the 500,000 men and women who keep food on Americans’ tables and our farm economy working.”

Meat institute members have implemented multi-layered COVID-19 prevention measures that meet or exceed public health guidance and which independent research confirms significantly reduce COVID-19 transmission.

The University of Nebraska Medical Center found that the combination of universal masking and physical barriers reduced cases significantly in 62 percent of meat facilities studied. An analysis published in the Lancet journal in June 2020 found that distancing of 3 feet and using facemasks each reduce transmission by about 80 percent, and using eye protection reduces transmission by about 65 percent.

Key measures implemented in participating facilities include:

  • Using entry screening measures and controls;
  • Using face coverings and other personal protective equipment;
  • Increasing physical distancing and reduced gathering points through measures such as altered traffic patterns, additional break/eating spaces, staggered shifts and breaks;
  • Installing physical barriers in food production and other spaces such as break rooms and cafeterias where physical distancing is not feasible;
  • Increasing sanitation and disinfection practices, additional cleaning staff;
  • Enhancing air sanitation and ventilation;
  • Training and education materials on COVID-19 symptoms and prevention, often in multiple languages; and
  • Increasing flexibility in leave policies.

Industry estimates of the cost of implementing these measures top $1 billion.

Meat institute members are committed to continuing these proven measures and providing their support to vaccinate frontline meat and poultry workers quickly and safely. Many can even assist in vaccine distribution for all Americans.

FERN reports 57,000 meat and poultry workers have been infected by the COVID-19 virus and  284 deaths have been recorded to date. Many of the deaths occurred early on during the pandemic.

NAMI’s analysis will likely be used in defending the industry in an upcoming Inspector General (IG) report that was requested by Sen. Michael Bennet, D-CO. Bennet promotes a theory that industry practices “contributed to the spread of the virus in these facilities.”

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