Cost of COVID: the financial impact of the pandemic on rural America, meatpacking plants

Meatpacking plants were hit especially hard during the first few months of the pandemic, and now researchers have put a dollar figure on that impact.

Researchers at the University of California-Davis say that nearly 350,000 cases of COVID-19 can be attributed to meatpacking plants. This caused more than $11 billion dollars in economic damage throughout the U.S.

One of the study’s authors says that number could be conservative because knowing the exact number of cases is nearly impossible.

According to Tina Saitone, “There’s going to be instances where a meatpacking plant employee works in county X, but lives and does their shopping and their community type activities in county Y.”

This could mean that employee’s case was not directly linked to the meatpacking facility. Some say that the industry should transition to smaller facilities, but that move would not come without a cost.

“The current system has developed to operate very efficiently and provide animal based proteins to consumers at a relatively reasonable price,” Saitone states. “So, if we moved to a smaller scale more geographically dispersed system, we’re actually going to be adding costs back into the meatpacking sector which has evolved to eliminate them.”

Rather than moving in that direction, researchers say that adopting automation and technology could be a better option.

Their scope of study did not look at poultry plants specifically, but those facilities did have a lower spread rate.

“We suspect that the smaller more homogenous structure, physically, of broilers that allow those plants to utilize more automation and technology allowed that sector to be more resilient and incorporate a kind of social distancing and other protocols that limit the spread of COVID,” she explains.

The major processors, like Tyson and Smithfield, say that they spent hundreds of millions of dollars in protective measures. Previous studies show those measures cut down on the spread of COVID in processing facilities.


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