Study: Counties With Meatpacking Plants Had More COVID-19 Cases

Food factory workers washing hands.

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Key Takeaways

  • About 334,000 COVID-19 cases can be attributed to meatpacking plants, which caused an estimated $11.2 billion in economic damage, according to a new study.
  • Beef- and pork-processing plants had higher transmission rates compared to chicken plants.
  • Researchers hope their study will inform worker safety and will lead to better investment in sick pay for meatpacking workers. 

Approximately 334,000 COVID-19 cases across the country are attributable to meatpacking plants, leading to $11.2 billion in economic damage, new research finds.

Researchers took a closer look at the economic impact of COVID-19 cases in counties across the U.S. and examined meatpacking facilities' impact on COVID-19 transmission among workers. 

They found that beef- and pork-processing plants more than doubled per person infection rates in counties where they operated.

“We did find that both beef and pork processing facilities had higher levels of transmission than broiler chicken processing facilities,” Tina Saitone, PhD, MS, a cooperative extension specialist in the department of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California Davis, tells Verywell.

The April study published in the Food Policy journal found that after 150 days after the first COVID-19 case in a U.S. county:

  • Beef-processing plants increased transmission by 110%
  • Pork-processing plants increased transmission by 160%
  • Chicken-processing plants increased transmission by 20%

High Transmission and Economic Consequences

The study was divided into two parts. The first component looked at whether counties in the United States with large meatpacking facilities differed in COVID-19 transmission rates. The study looked specifically at large meatpacking plants generating more than 10 million pounds per month.

“We did find that transmission rates in counties with meatpacking plants were statistically different than counties without them,” Saitone says. 

The second part of the study involved quantifying the economic impact of these higher transmission rates. “We looked at the average time that a person who contracted COVID was out of work,” Saitone says. To quantify the economic impact, Saitone and her team looked at the case fatality rates—the proportion of people who die from a disease over a certain period of time—and how those rates changed over time. 

Saitone explains that the estimated rates for both transmission and economic consequences were conservative—the estimates were likely higher than reported in the study. “In our statistical modeling, we’re looking at county-level data," Saitone says. "We don’t have individual plant worker data so we don’t know where meatpacking plant employees live, shop, go to church, or interact in the general public. So we don’t know where they might be potentially spreading COVID-19.” 

Why Processing Plants Differ in Transmission Rates

The data shows a difference in transmission between beef- and pork-processing plants and those processing chicken.

Saitone and her team hypothesize that this disparity may be due in part to the nature of the meat. Broiler chickens are smaller and more homogeneous in size, allowing for the usage of automation and technology instead of workers to harvest facility processing lines. “And so we believe that that allows [meatpacking facilities] to be more effective at creating social distance on processing floors, using fewer employees on the floor during a given shift," Saitone says.

As for why meatpacking facilities increased transmission rates, Daniel Scheitrum, PhD, assistant professor at the department of agricultural and resource economics at the University of Arizona, tells Verywell there are a few reasons why the virus spread rapidly in these spaces compared to other workplace settings.

"It’s a large number of people in a small area working side by side, oftentimes shoulder to shoulder,” Scheitrum explains. Additionally, meatpacking jobs require intensive work such as lifting and cutting large cuts of meat, which leads to heavy breathing in close compact spaces. This serves as a breeding ground for COVID-19. The cold work temperatures can also harbor an environment where the virus can thrive. Research shows that lower temperatures help viruses survive for longer periods of time.

Saitone adds another contributing factor may be a mandate from former President Donald Trump declaring the meatpacking industry as essential, which ensured that packing plants stayed open. “So the industry was really not afforded that flexibility to protect their people,” Saitone says. While meatpacking plants invested millions in employee protections, Saitone says, they often fell short of mitigating COVID-19 transmission and putting the necessary protections in place quickly. 

Scheitrum hopes that their research will inform worker safety and will encourage companies to invest in sick pay for employees.

“People that work in the packing plants don’t have a lot of agency to stay home from work,” Scheitrum says. “If they are sick, they need the money, and if they’re not going to get paid if they don’t show up, they have every incentive in the world to show up for work. Hopefully, there are some lessons to be learned about sick pay for employees, especially those who can’t afford to miss work."

What This Means For You

COVID-19 mainly spreads through respiratory transmission, so you likely don't need to worry about your food being contaminated. In order to protect yourself, especially in a community with high transmission rates, make sure to wear your mask and social distance.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. Saitone TL, Aleks Schaefer K, Scheitrum DP. COVID-19 morbidity and mortality in U.S. meatpacking counties. Food Policy. 2021;101:102072. doi:10.1016/j.foodpol.2021.102072

  2. Biryukov J, Boydston JA, Dunning RA, et al. Increasing temperature and relative humidity accelerates inactivation of SARS-CoV-2 on surfaces. mSphere. 2020 Jul 1;5(4):e00441-20. doi:10.1128/mSphere.00441-20