Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar dismissed concerns about the spread of the coronavirus at meat packing plants, saying workers were more likely to catch the deadly disease at home or in social situations.
Azar’s remarks were made on a phone call with Democratic and Republican lawmakers and came after President Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to keep meat plants open amid fears of a food shortage.
But the plants have also had high outbreaks of the coronavirus among workers – more than 10,000 have tested positive nationwide with at least 45 deaths.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar dismissed concerns about the spread of the coronavirus at meat packing plants; he was in the Oval Office on Wednesday for an event honoring nurses, standing next to Dr. Deborah Birx
At least 730 employees at a Tyson plant in Perry, Iowa, have tested positive for COVID-19. That is 58 percent of their workforce
Some of the largest slaughterhouses and processing plants across the United States have been forced to close in recent weeks due to outbreaks among workers. Others plants have slowed production as workers have fallen ill or stayed home to avoid getting sick
An aerial photo made with a drone shows the closed Aurora Packing Company meat processing plant in Aurora, Illinois, which had closed due to the coronavirus
Some of the lawmakers on the April 28 call with Azar told Politico he said it was the ‘home and social’ aspects of workers’ lives rather than the conditions inside the facilities that led to people catching the disease.
Azar, a member of the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force, noted many workers live in group housing, which contributed to the spread, and suggested one solution would be to send in more law enforcement officials to enforce social distancing rules.
Several people on the call interpreted his remarks as blaming the workers.
‘He was essentially turning it around, blaming the victim and implying that their lifestyle was the problem,’ Democratic Rep. Ann Kuster of New Hampshire told Politico. ‘Their theory of the case is that they are not becoming infected in the meat processing plant, they’re becoming infected because of the way they live in their home.’
An HHS spokesperson told the news website it doesn’t comment on Azar’s conversations with lawmakers but called it ‘an inaccurate representation of Secretary’s Azar’s comments during the discussion.’
At least 10,000 meat industry workers have tested positive since the pandemic began, according to an analysis by USA Today and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.
At least 170 plants in 29 states have had one or more workers test positive for the coronavirus. Some of those workers also have infected others, which is included in the count.
Most meat packing workers are Latino and many are illegal immigrants.
About 44 percent of meatpackers are Latino, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research and 80 percent are undocumented or refugees, according to an analysis from The League of United Latin American Citizens.
Meat shortages impact Wendy’s, Kroger and Costco
Wendy’s restaurant has taken burgers off the menu in some locations and grocery stores Costco and Kroger have announced limited stocks of beef as Americans start to feel the impact of the pandemic-triggered meat shortage.
It’s a shocking decision for Wendy’s, which established itself as the first fast-food chain to offer fresh ‘never frozen’ beef, and it’s an eerie foreshadowing for what’s to come at restaurants across the country.
Beef shortages were reported at Wendy’s locations in California, South Carolina and Kentucky on Monday. In Chicago Wendy’s ‘Baconator’ bacon cheeseburger was still available for order.
‘As you’ve likely heard, beef suppliers across North America are currently facing production challenges,’ a Wendy’s statement.
The outbreaks have prompted at least 40 meat slaughtering and processing plant closures, which have ranged from as little as a day to indefinite.
The closures have spurred national shortages of beef and pork, with Kroger and Costco instituting limits on how many meat items a customer can buy.
Wendy’s locations in multiple states have temporarily removed beef hamburgers from their menus due to supply chain disruptions.
Customers have also seen prices rise sharply at the grocery store – but there is now some debate as to whether supply chains are to blame for the higher prices.
Trump said on Wednesday he had urged the Justice Department to look into allegations that the meatpacking industry broke antitrust law.
The president pointed out that the price that slaughterhouses pay farmers for animals had dropped even as meat prices for consumers rose.
‘I’ve asked the Justice Department to look into it. … I’ve asked them to take a very serious look into it, because it shouldn’t be happening that way and we want to protect our farmers,’ the president told reporters at a White House event attended by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds.
‘Are they dealing with each other? What’s going on?’ the president asked.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, the Iowa Department of Health confirmed outbreaks in four separate meat packing plants.
At the Tyson plant in Perry, 730 employees tested positive for COVID-19. That is 58 percent of their workforce.
The Tyson plant in Columbus Junction had 221 positive tests, 26 percent of its workforce, and Tyson’s Waterloo facility had 17 percent of its employees test positive.
Iowa Premium Beef in Tama saw 221 positive tests, or 39 percent of its workforce.
It was not immediately clear how many of the positive test cases were ill or symptomatic.
And Tyson Fresh Meats, the beef and pork subsidiary of Tyson Foods, announced a plan to resume limited operations this week at its Waterloo plant, two weeks after it was shuttered on April 22 amid a coronavirus outbreak.
Workers wear protective masks and stand between plastic dividers at Tyson’s Camilla, Georgia poultry processing plant
Tyson Foods is preparing to reopen its largest US pork processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa, this week after a coronavirus outbreak sickened at least 444 workers and killed two
America’s mounting meat crisis has been laid bare in pictures showing empty store shelves across the country after processing plants were forced to slow production or close
The pork industry has been hit especially hard by the coronavirus as meat processing plants were closed throughout the country
All employees returning to work have been screened for the virus, the company said, and any employee who tested positive will remain on sick leave until released by health officials to return to work.
Tyson said it performed a deep clean and sanitization of the facility, which employs 2,800 workers, while it was idled.
Last week, Tyson deployed mobile clinics to its facilities in Columbus Junction and Waterloo to provide on-site testing and screening for all employees.
‘Tyson is committed to implementing all possible measures to protect our team members,’ said Hector Gonzalez, Senior Vice President of Human Resources for Tyson Foods, said in a statement at the time.