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Illnesses at Meat Plants Continue to Rise

Numbers increasing as more plants reopen across the country
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted May 26, 2020 8:34 AM CDT
Illnesses at Meat Plants Continue to Rise
A sign limiting customers to four items of fresh meat hangs over shelves at a Hy-Vee supermarket in Omaha, Neb., Wednesday, May 6, 2020.   (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

The Washington Post and the New York Times have front-page stories Tuesday on the nation's meat plants, and both report that outbreaks among workers are continuing as more plants reopen. Exact numbers are hard to come by because the plants, deemed essential businesses, are not legally obligated to report them. But the Post reports that the number of employees with the coronavirus at Tyson Foods has risen from 1,600 to 7,000 over the last month. Tyson is the nation's biggest meat processor. In the same period, the number of cases at Tyson and two other industry giants, Smithfield Foods and JBS—has gone from 3,000 to 11,000. And industrywide, the figure has eclipsed 17,000, according to stats cited by the Times from the Food & Environment Reporting Network.

The number of deaths has jumped from 17 to 63 in the last month, per the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, while FERN has the figure at 66. The companies, meanwhile, are adding safety precautions. Tyson, for instance, is setting up medical clinics at plants, requiring temperature checks, and installing plastic dividers to try to keep workers separated. But the uptick in cases highlights the challenges of the safety-vs.-necessity debate. The Times story focuses on another aspect: The plants carry huge clout in the largely rural areas where they are located. Emails obtained by Columbia University’s Brown Institute for Media Innovation and seen by the newspaper "reveal the deference some county officials have shown toward the giant meatpacking companies and how little power they have in pushing the companies to stem outbreaks." (Read more meat stories.)

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