Iowa Included In Federal Investigation Into Meat Packing Plant Virus Outbreaks

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Tyson's Waterloo plant.
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By Kassidy Arena, Iowa Public Radio News

A U.S. House subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis has launched an investigation looking into coronavirus outbreaks at meat processing plants throughout the country, including Iowa.

As a result of at least 270 deaths and thousands of positive cases in the nation’s meatpacking plants, the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis sent letters to Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods and JBS USA. All of them have locations in Iowa. The subcommittee is seeking information from each company about coronavirus infections and deaths.

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In the letter to Tyson, the subcommittee pointed out outbreaks in neighboring Nebraska and a substantial outbreak in Storm Lake. Majority Whip Rep. James E. Clyburn, the chairman of the subcommittee, is also asking for a full report from Tyson from the “independent investigation” the meat company conducted which led to the termination of seven managers at its Waterloo plant for allegedly placing bets on how many employees would contract the virus.

The company said in a December, 2020 press release: “We took immediate and appropriate action to get to the truth. Now that the investigation has concluded, we are taking action based on the findings.” Tyson has not released the report of its findings.

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In a separate letter, the subcommittee also inquired about the role the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) played in the outbreaks when under the Trump administration.

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“It is imperative that the previous Administration’s shortcomings are swiftly identified and rectified to save lives in the months before coronavirus vaccinations are available for all Americans,” Clyburn said in the letter. He also stated OSHA “failed to adequately carry out its responsibility.”

Under the former administration, OSHA issued eight citations for violating coronavirus safety guidelines. Clyburn said in the letter addressed to the deputy assistant secretary of labor, that OSHA “only suggested non-binding guidance that companies are free to ignore.”

By law, Iowa OSHA is required to have at least the same protections as federal OSHA. The state can have more, but not fewer regulations. Iowa OSHA operates on the federal COVID-19 guidelines, which offer recommendations, but not necessarily enforcement protocol.

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In the U.S., it is estimated more than 60 percent of meatpacking employees are Black or Latino and almost half come from low-income families. Many employees in Iowa’s meat processing plants also come from Latino, Black or immigrant communities.

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