It was clear, early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, that meatpacking plants were particularly susceptible to the disease, given that workers often stand shoulder to shoulder on production lines. With workers contracting the virus in record numbers, many meatpacking companies had to temporarily shut down operations and implement new safety measures to protect their employees.
On July 30, Tyson Foods announced its plans to administer several thousand coronavirus tests each week in all 140 of its U.S. production facilities.
With the help of its medical team, the Springdale, Arkansas-based company plans to test random employees who have no symptoms, as well as those who are exhibiting symptoms and anyone who has been exposed to someone who tested positive or exhibited symptoms.
Earlier this year, Tyson Foods introduced daily health screenings, workstation dividers, face masks and social distance monitors into its facilities. Adding weekly testing into the mix is a move that Tyson Foods group President and Chief Administrative Officer Donnie King hopes is enough to stay ahead of the virus.
“We believe launching a new, strategic approach to monitoring and adding the health staff to support it will help further our efforts to go on the offensive against the virus,” King wrote in a press release obtained by TODAY Food.
Back in the spring, Tyson Foods had to temporarily close several facilities due to coronavirus outbreaks. Operations at a plant in Nebraska were put on hold in April after a surge of coronavirus cases in the area. In May, a Tyson Foods meat factory in Iowa was temporarily shut down after more than 700 employees (58%) tested positive for the virus, as was a factory in Indiana when more than 900 workers caught the virus.
TODAY asked Crystal Watson, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, if weekly testing is enough to keep meatpacking employees safe during the pandemic. She said it's an important first step.
"I do think that testing more frequently will generally help catch cases earlier and prevent large outbreaks," she said. "Particular focus should be on making sure symptomatic individuals are tested and their contacts are tested."
Watson also urged the company to create a contingency plan for dealing with infected employees.
"It is very important that Tyson take the next step and enable anyone who tests positive to isolate with pay, and enable anyone with a significant exposure to a case to quarantine for 14 days with pay," Watson continued. "If these policies are enacted in conjunction with testing, I think Tyson will make their company safer for their workers and the communities in which they live."
A Tyson Foods spokesperson confirmed to TODAY that team members who test positive are covered by short-term disability pay and may return to work only once they have met criteria established by both the CDC and Tyson.
With workers in meatpacking facilities standing so close to each other, the virus spread a lot easier before social distancing measures were put in place. The Food & Environment Reporting Network (FERN), a non-profit news organization, recently reported that 38,403 meatpacking workers have tested positive for coronavirus as of July 30. Of that number, at least 171 have died.
When FERN compared Tyson Foods to other companies, it found that the company of 120,000 workers had 10,104 cases (one in 10 employees).
A Tyson Foods spokesperson gave the following response to TODAY when asked about FERN's study: "About one-third of our workforce – or 40,000 team members – have been tested for COVID and we believe we were the only food company to publicly disclose the results of facility-wide tests. Our testing efforts have helped find team members who have the virus but have no symptoms and would have not otherwise been identified. (For example, in June at one plant 199 people tested positive for the virus and 198 had no symptoms, and otherwise would not have been identified)."
The company declined to disclose the total number of employees who have tested positive or have died from the virus, but estimated that less than 1% of its U.S. workforce currently has active COVID-19.
Tyson has faced backlash over the past few months over concerns of unsafe working conditions, and in April, The Washington Post launched an investigation that found that and two of its competitors "failed to provide employees with protective equipment, instead telling them to keep working even as the spread of the coronavirus across the country turned crowded plants into infection hot spots."
When asked about The Washington Post's investigation, a Tyson Foods spokesperson said the company was one of the first to take team member's temperatures and offered the following statement: "Our top priority is the health and safety of our workers and we’ve implemented a host of protective measures at our facilities that meet or exceed CDC and OSHA guidance for preventing COVID-19. Our company formed a coronavirus task force in January and began educating our team members – in multiple languages – about the virus, including the importance of staying home from work they don’t feel well."
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) — America’s largest meatpacking union — applauded Tyson Foods for its testing initiative, but has also been vocal about the industry's unsafe working conditions in the age of coronavirus. Just last week, the group filed a federal lawsuit opposing the USDA's waivers that allow poultry plants to increase production line speeds during the pandemic.
So far, Tyson Food's coronavirus testing program has been piloted at several facilities and a Tyson spokesperson confirmed to TODAY that the testing will be limited to U.S. locations for the time being. Tyson also has plants in China, Thailand, Australia, the Netherlands and elsewhere.