By now, it’s undeniable that conditions at meatpacking facilities have been the leading cause of COVID-19 outbreaks in the Midwest.
Today, Donald Trump will order meat processing plants to remain open, declaring them critical infrastructure under Defense Production Act.
Reynolds echoed that sentiment in her press conference today.
“This is essential, critical infrastructure. It is essential to keeping the food supply chain moving,” she said.
For Iowa specifically, Reynolds said the state provides ten percent of the nation’s food supply.
“We have a role and an obligation from our farmers to our processors to our supply chain to continue to feed the world and keep food on the plate,” she said.
The catch is making sure it’s safe for the people—many of whom are immigrants and refugees—working on the line.
Despite promises to governors and local officials, reporters are finding the companies aren’t adequately protecting workers by providing PPE or the ability to stay six feet apart while working.
On Saturday, the Washington Post reported, “Three of the nation’s largest meat processors failed to provide protective gear to all workers, and some employees say they were told to continue working in crowded plants even while sick as the coronavirus spread around the country and turned the facilities into infection hot spots, a Washington Post investigation has found.”
Starting Line has found the same.
“I reached out to several employees, family members and some advocates as well to learn more about their working conditions. They all contradicted the company’s statements,” Starting Line reported a week ago.
Gov. Kim Reynolds still insists meatpacking plants are doing all that’s been asked of them to protect their workers.
“What I’ve seen is that our processing plants have done everything that they can and continue to work to make sure that their employees are working in a safe environment,” she said. “I’ve talked to almost every one of them many times.”
She listed temperature scans, looser attendance policies, social distancing, face coverings with masks or shields, partitions between work stations and encouragement to stay home as the efforts these employers are making.
She also said the state’s expanded testing abilities will continue to be used at meatpacking facilities in the state.
In Iowa, four facilities have temporarily suspended operations, though three are now back in business.
The Tyson Fresh Meats plant in Waterloo is the only one still closed. The Tyson plant in Columbus Junction, the National Beef plant in Tama and the Tyson Foods in Perry have reopened their doors.
All of these plants have been tied to the outbreaks seen in their respective communities. In Black Hawk County, 44 percent of workers at the closed Tyson Fresh Meats have tested positive for the virus, according to the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier.
A Nebraska meatpacking plant—while not confirmed—is widely suspected to be the source of an explosion in cases in Woodbury County. This has prompted officials in the Sioux City metro yesterday to call for more transparency from the state and Tyson about where new cases are coming from.
Last week, USA Today published a massive investigation that came to the conclusion that plants will always choose production over worker safety.
“But experts say there’s little risk of a dwindling protein supply because, given the choice between worker safety and keeping meat on grocery shelves, the nation’s slaughterhouses will choose to produce food,” the article says.
It also points out that meatpacking plants are well-known for poor working conditions and high rates of employee illness and injury.
Officials in Iowa have called for OSHA inspections of the Waterloo plant. A few weeks ago, the CDC inspected a Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The outbreak there made Sioux Falls the worst hotspot for coronavirus in the country.
So far there have been no updates on inspections in Iowa.
by Nikoel Hytrek
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