JBS units agree to infectious disease plan in OSHA settlement

Dive Brief:

  • Four JBS Foods USA subsidiaries and affiliates have agreed to work with third-party experts to develop and implement an infectious disease preparedness plan for seven of the company’s meat processing facilities to protect their workers, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration said in a statement.
  • OSHA said the companies will work with outside experts recommended by the agency and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union to evaluate and provide recommendations on engineering, cleaning, ventilation, personal protective equipment and visitor screening protocols. OSHA also fined the companies $14,502 after finding facilities in Colorado and Wisconsin did not do enough to protect workers.
  • The agreement with the workplace safety regulator comes two weeks after a congressional panel said meat companies used “baseless” claims of a supply shortage resulting from reduced operations and worker absenteeism in order to justify operating plants under “dangerous conditions” in the early months of the pandemic.

Dive Insight:

The OSHA settlement with JBS is the latest fodder for critics who argue the meat industry failed to protect its workers. 

In a statement, OSHA said the agreement involves plants in six states operated by Swift Beef, Swift Pork, JBS Souderton and JBS Green Bay — all units of JBS. 

Following two inspections in April and May 2020, OSHA cited Swift Beef in Greeley, Colorado, and JBS Green Bay in Green Bay, Wisconsin, for failing to protect workers from coronavirus hazards. Together, the two plants had seven deaths from COVID-19 and 647 workers test positive. The fine was applied to these locations.

Jennifer Rous, OSHA’s regional administrator in Denver, said the settlement will “positively impact the safety and health of JBS employees far beyond the two facilities where these inspections occurred.” John Rainwater, another OSHA official in Dallas, Texas, said “we will ensure that this agreement is in full force to prevent a mass outbreak from happening again.”

In an emailed response to Food Dive, JBS said it established a COVID-19 playbook that cataloged the best practices and provided guidance, protocols and procedures to ensure the protection of its workforce. “We welcome this opportunity to strengthen our processes and plan to implement this important resource across our U.S. business,” the company said.

It’s uncertain whether the agreement between OSHA and JBS, including the small fine, will lead to long-term improvements. It’s possible the labor body could decide to announce similar deals and fines toward other businesses in the industry in an effort to send a message and improve their responses in the future. 

Despite being more than two years into the pandemic, the meat and poultry industry continues to face criticism over how it responded and the way it treated its workers. Unions, activists, employees and family members criticized the industry for waiting too long to put additional safety measures in place. 

The harshest criticism of the industry came earlier this month when a bipartisan House subcommittee said the industry put profits over worker safety and benefited from a cozy relationship with the Trump administration in an effort to get around measures put in place by state and local health officials to stop the spread of the virus.

The industry has routinely denied the accusations and pointed to measures it has implemented and millions of dollars it has spent to stop the spread of COVID-19 among its workers. 

The meat and poultry industries have been subjected to other bouts of criticism in recent years. Pork and chicken processors have been hit by accusations that the few large players have used their clout to manipulate prices, leading to antitrust investigations and settlements. 

The Biden administration has vowed to crack down on price-fixing in the meat industry. And the closing of Cargill and Continental Grain’s $4.53 billion planned purchase of poultry giant Sanderson Farms has been delayed amid questions from federal regulators.