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Meat supply safety worries mount: even if it’s available, should you eat it?

It’s no secret that the American meat supply chain has been seriously harmed by COVID-19. Nonetheless, the CDC insists that despite the turmoil of the shutdowns and shortages, our meat remains safe to eat.

But an investigation by The Prepared suggests otherwise:

  • We’ve learned that many large US meat processing plants have sought and obtained permission from the FDA to increase their line speed — a potentially dangerous move even without the current coronavirus-induced staff shortages added in.
  • Some of the same plants that have gotten the go-ahead to speed up their lines have also been hit hard by COVID-19, with shutdowns due to workers falling ill and even dying.
  • These plants have now been forced to reopen by the government, with their workers ordered back to work despite the danger from COVID-19.
  • On top of all the sped-up lines and the worker safety concerns, some 300 USDA meat inspectors have recently been taken out of the workforce by COVID-19.

This situation has all the ingredients for an unsafe meat supply, as deregulated meat processors and their overburdened, understaffed workforces cut corners on critical food inspections in the name of staying open and preventing another national meat shortage.

Could the meat produced under this kind of stress on our already vulnerable system really be safe?

Industry academics express confidence in meat safety

We spoke to food scientist Dr. Gretchen Mafi, who researches meat quality and cutability at Oklahoma State University, to find out how experts are thinking about meat safety right now.

“As a consumer myself, and as a meat scientist, I have 100% confidence in our system.” Mafi said. “I have no fears of eating out, of what I purchase at retail or at restaurants. I have not changed my cooking habits and I don’t see any need for different precautions during this time than I did before.”

Dr. Mafi said the USDA is trained very well to provide what she called “the safest food supply in the world.” She said the USDA has an excellent system for monitoring meat quality and testing for pathogens.

Yes, there have been lots of cases in meat processing plants, but Dr. Mafi said we can trust meat companies to take precautions to increase safety. “The plants have taken steps,” Dr. Mafi said. “If there are fewer employees, they have to run slower. All the inspection requirements are still in place.”

We then asked Dr. Mafi to weigh in on a report from The Guardian that indicated the opposite. Instead of slowing down meat production as plants close and workers get sick, the USDA has actually given processors permission to increase line speed. That’s despite warnings that meat safety could be compromised.

“USDA-FSIS operates to ensure a safe, wholesome product,” Dr. Mafi replied via email when asked about the report. “Measures are in place that continually monitor and analyze potential hazards and eliminate those if found.”

Another expert we talked to echoed Mafi’s confidence in the safety of the meat supply. “I don’t think there are any elevated food safety concerns,” said Purdue agricultural economist Jayson Lusk via email.

But we weren’t convinced, so we did some more digging into the line speedups.

Calculating meat safety ourselves

We may not be able to get definitive information about how processing plants are managing risks associated with COVID-19. But we can put some information together from COVID-19 reports, plant closures and reopenings, and Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) reports.

If the speed of production is a concern, it’s relatively simple to figure out if plants have increased line speed despite coronavirus infections. The first thing to look at is participation in the FSIS Salmonella Initiative Program (SIP). In exchange for food safety data, plants that participate in the SIP program get waivers for regulatory requirements. FSIS reports those waivers, so we can figure out which plants have permission to speed up production, and when they got that permission.

Then, we can use the USDA’s establishment registry to figure out where these plants are and how they’ve done with salmonella in the past year. Finally, to get a sense of the stress on these plants during COVID-19, we can take a look at the Food and Environment Reporting Network’s COVID-19 map to match those plants with coronavirus outbreaks.

Analysis reveals safety is not a priority

The SIP program report shows that sixteen poultry plants have received line speed waivers since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. The plants include Foster Farms, Tyson Foods, Inc., Wayne Farms, LLC, Mountaire Farms, Inc., and George’s Processing, Inc.

Just one beef plant has gotten a waiver, but it encompasses far more—inspection staffing, scheduling, spacing, handling of bruised parts, line speed, and generic E. coli testing.

Now comes the tricky part—figuring out where those plants are and whether or not they’ve reported COVID-19 cases. For that, we look to the COVID-19 map and put it all together. Here are the plants that we found are operating with cases of COVID-19 and increased line speeds:

  • Foster Farms in Kelso, WA (9 COVID-19 cases, waiver in March)
  • Tyson Foods in Forest, MS (1 COVID-19 death, waiver in April)
  • Wayne Farms in Albertsville, AL (1 COVID-19 death, 75 COVID-19 cases, waiver in April)
  • Tyson Foods in Robards, KY (74 COVID-19 cases, waiver in April)
  • Mountaire Farms in Lumber Bridge, NC (9 COVID-19 cases, waiver in April)

Notably, the one beef plant that got a waiver for inspection staffing, scheduling, spacing, handling of bruised parts, line speed, and E. coli testing in March has also been impacted by COVID-19. That’s the Tyson Foods beef plant in Holcomb, KS. It’s reported 87 cases of COVID-19 so far.

Since the coronavirus pandemic reached the United States, five poultry plants and one beef plant have been authorized to speed up production even as they report cases of COVID-19 (and even deaths) among their employees.

Why does line speed matter?

Like Dr. Mafi, we assumed that if meat and poultry plants started getting cases of COVID-19, they’d slow down production. That would make sense. Clean up the processing plant, operate with a reduced workforce, and move slower to guarantee everyone’s safety.

Now, it’s possible that the plants in Washington, Missouri, Alabama, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Kansas are doing just that. It’s possible that the plants are not using the waivers the FSIS has issued. But since these waivers have all been asked for and issued since March, that seems unlikely.

Instead, these plants are probably increasing line speed to avoid blame for meat shortages.

Line speed isn’t the only measure of whether or not a plant is operating safely, but it’s an important one. These increased line speeds can be incredibly dangerous for workers. A spokesperson for the United Food and Commercial Workers told The Counter earlier in April:

Faster line speeds in the poultry plants are dangerous for workers. Line speeds in poultry plants can already move at an insanely fast 140 birds per minute …. For the USDA to grant waivers one-by-one to allow them to engage in this hazardous practice is a risky mistake.

Worker safety was already a concern before COVID-19 came along. In 2016, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report on work hazards in the meat and poultry industry. In interviews with workers and inspectors, GAO found that while inspection injuries vary, “inspectors in poultry plants sustain more repetitive motion injuries due to faster line speeds.”

Is it possible to get safe meat right now?

Given the picture painted by our reporting, we’d be skeptical of any industrial meat product right now. It’s hard to know exactly where any given package of boneless skinless chicken breasts has been processed. And we already know that multiple meat and poultry plants around the country are operating recklessly, so it’s hard to trust that the meat you’re buying has been properly inspected and is truly safe to eat.

As is so often the case, small producers are probably the safest bet right now. Some other advantages to shopping for beef and poultry from smaller outlets: fewer customers who might expose you to COVID-19, and some farms and small butchers even deliver.


    • Tony

      Good information. I’ve been wondering about this. Thanks!

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    • Hardened

      Thank goodness for your timely reporting!

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    • PACNWPrepared

      I’m curious how often and in what way others are back-filling their food items as they use them. As in…are you doing a monthly shopping trip, bi-weekly deliveries, exclusively shopping online or 100% relying on current stock and not venturing out at all? Are you continuing to buy additional items if you’re shopping? I’m fortunate I can afford delivery and it’s available in my area – I’m immunocompromised – but I also recognize that it’s a service that puts workers at risk so I want to minimize my strain on the system while also keeping myself prepared for the long haul of this.

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      • Hardened PACNWPrepared

        I made large food delivery purchases when COVID first hit.  Now my main concern is crime (I live in a low-income neighborhood and my packages have started getting stolen) so I’m having small deliveries made weekly to attract less attention.

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      • SeaBee PACNWPrepared

        Brooklyn boy here. I am carefully shopping once per week or week and a half. Mask, gloves and a focused list to get me in and out swiftly at low-volume hours. I don’t disinfect my items, and I’m not buying prepared foods like deli counter stuff or grocery sushi. Holy shit do I miss my sushi but oh well.

        The Erin Bromage piece from a few days back is an excellent articulation of risk assessment, and basically confirmed my approach. My biggest risk is an infected person sneezing or coughing directly in my face without their mask on, and that’s where my Aura of Intimidate +12 comes in handy to keep the pedestrians at bay.

        I could get delivery, but I feel that is best reserved for folks with mobility and vulnerability concerns. It’s a balance for each of us to manage, for sure. Just signed up for a CSA fruit/veggie/egg share and double meat share, so that will minimize shopping needs.

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      • PACNWPrepared SeaBee

        Check out sushi in a bowl! We made this a few weeks back and it satisfied the sushi craving. In all about the spicy mayo! We used salted oven roasted kale. I subscribe to a produce box as well and it’s been a game changer.

        California Roll Sushi Bowls

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      • Hardened SeaBee

        Which CSA?  I’m in Brooklyn too.

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    • Hardened

      Can anyone find a list of the industrial-processed animals?  I want to buy only game meat from now on and would like a precise way to determine whether or not it’s in the category of meats processed by the big plants.

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      • Kelsey DonkContributor Hardened

        Hi David! Thanks for this question. The closest I’ve come to figuring that out is by looking at the establishment registry from the USDA. I link to it in the post, but you can also look at it here: The USDA classifies meat types into categories like ‘young chicken carcasses’ and ‘chicken parts.’ So you could figure out where those products are being produced and match them to industrial plants. That doesn’t seem as precise as you want it, though, and it doesn’t account for game meat. I’ll keep digging for a follow up post I’m writing about how to eat and shop for meat safely, given all this confusion and chaos.

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    • A2

      Olympia, Washington here. Started shopping once per month in March. Half-face respirator with P100s, gloves, goggles, focused list, early morning (either 2am or 6am). Two stores: Safeway and Costco, one hour +/- each. Load groceries in back of suv, strip off gloves, use hand sanitizer, drive home. At home, strip off clothing in front of washer, start washer, take shower. Then disinfect all items and/or store in garage for a week. Wash all veggies/fruits and air dry on clean towels for half an hour.

      My March and April trips were the only time I left the house. Every single time I shopped there were unmasked people who were coughing, sneezing, or sniffling.

      After second trip, I came down with an upper respiratory virus with all the symptoms of a light case of covid. It’s lasted for three weeks and counting (exhaustion, dry cough, low fever/chills, shortness of breath, somewhat low blood oxy, body/joint aches, headaches, etc.) My covid test was negative, but there’s a 20-50% chance of false negatives.

      As of May, I now get Instacart delivery, plus a CSA for veggies/fruit.

      BOTTOM LINE: I was as careful as I knew how to be with both protections, protocols, and frequency of being in public, and somehow STILL picked up something. SMH.

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