Your Chicken Nuggets May Be Driving the Pandemic

October 19, 2021
Brett Jordan/Unsplash
Rebecca Boehm
Economist

Earlier this year, Tyson Foods, Inc., the biggest chicken and meat company in the United States (ranked fifth in the world), spent just over $2 billion to buy Keystone Foods, the company that makes every single chicken nugget that gets sold by McDonald’s. Keystone Foods is just the latest conquest to be added to Tyson’s multi-billion-dollar chicken and meat empire. 

Like the Galactic Empire led by the likes of Palpatine and Darth Vader, Tyson’s empire now stands virtually unchallenged in its industry. As our report Tyson Spells Trouble for Arkansas shows, Tyson controls two-thirds of the chicken industry, exerting monopoly-like power over chicken farmers, plant workers, and communities in its home state of Arkansas. The national story is not much better—Tyson controls more of the US chicken market than any other company, accounting for about one-quarter of the industry’s revenues nationally. The US chicken market is highly consolidated—60 percent is controlled by Tyson and three other companies—which has many negative consequences.

One negative consequence, which has been identified by numerous studies, is the risk that processing plants operated by Tyson and its top competitors pose for the transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Which is why anytime you head to the drive-through at McDonald’s, or purchase those frozen Tyson “fun” nuggets, you need to think about how their production has worsened the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here’s why.

The Tyson Chicken Empire Has Long Ignored Worker Safety; COVID-19 Is No Different

The basic features of the meat and poultry processing industry—big factories in which workers are in close proximity to one another, working quickly—contribute to the risk of a worker catching COVID-19. However, Tyson increases the risk by neglecting its workers’ basic right to a safe workplace and treating them as if they are replaceable.

Treating workers as exploitable and expendable—despite pulling in $2 billion in profits according to the most recent data available—is a posture long held by Tyson and even its top competitors. As the leader in its industry, however, Tyson as early as the 1990s was finding ways to neglect workers to bolster profits. For example, it developed and led the revolution against worker compensation programs in state after state, in an effort to cut costs of supporting workers recuperating from life-threatening injuries they incurred on the job.

Earlier this year, through a joint investigation with The Guardian, we learned that Tyson routinely penalizes workers in Arkansas for taking bathroom breaks or sick days, and lets other more serious abuses such as sexual harassment and violence go unchecked. The investigation also found that Tyson did little to protect its workers from COVID-19.

Before this Guardian investigation, many news reports since the pandemic began in the United States reported major outbreaks in meat and poultry plants, such as this one at a Tyson plant in Waterloo, Iowa. Now several scientific studies have shown the same thing. These plants not only present a particularly high COVID-19 infection risk to workers, but also for spread in surrounding communities.

What the Science Says About Poultry Plants Accelerating the COVID-19 Pandemic

A slew of studies, including one of our own last spring, show that plants operated by Tyson and other major meat and poultry companies have contributed to the transmission and spread of SARS-CoV-2 in communities all over the United States. I don’t use the word “slew” lightly here. The number of studies to date that have consistently demonstrated how bad these plants are for spreading the virus is remarkable.

In the first study, released by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in May 2020, the agency found virus outbreaks in 115 meat and poultry plants in 19 states, infecting roughly 5,000 workers. In the same month, the Environmental Working Group found that counties with or near meatpacking plants—including poultry plants like those Tyson operates—had twice the rate of known COVID-19 infections as the national average.

It was around this time that we released our estimate of the potential for these workers to become sickened or die from COVID-19.

Then in July 2020, the CDC issued a monitoring report update in which it tallied 239 outbreaks in meat and poultry plants in 23 states. This time, however, the number of workers who were estimated to be infected jumped dramatically to just over 16,000.

One of the most important studies to date so far was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the fall of 2020. This study linked the presence of meat and poultry plants in US counties to the transmission of the virus in those counties. What’s more, they found that in counties that had meat and poultry plants that received permission from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to increase the speed of the lines on which animals are slaughtered, cases in the surrounding communities were even higher than counties with plants that did not obtain permission to increase line speeds. Similarly, counties in which plants closed because of COVID-19 had lower cases rates around the closure periods.

Earlier this year, a team of agricultural economists found that the presence of a poultry processing plant in a particular county increased COVID-19 transmission rates by 20 percent, and that between January 22 and October 3, 2020, the poultry processing industry was responsible for just over 1,300 COVID-19 deaths and nearly 24,000 infections. The costs of disease incidence, the study reported, were already enormous: just over $40 million in lost wages and productivity and an additional $791 million in morbidity and mortality. This just in the first several months of the pandemic.

The evidence just kept piling up as the pandemic dragged on into this year. This summer, researchers at the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) found that rural counties with a higher dependence on manufacturing industries for employment saw higher COVID-19 infection rates than rural counties with less dependence on these industries. The researchers claimed this was partly due to higher rates of COVID-19 cases in counties dependent on meat and poultry processing for employment. And then in September of this year, the ERS published a follow-up study that more definitely showed that rural areas in which the predominant employer was a meat or poultry plant had higher levels of COVID-19 infections compared with rural areas whose predominant employer was in some other type of manufacturing. These findings point the finger at the meat and poultry processing industry as a key culprit in spreading the virus across our country. It also concluded that lack of protection for these workers was the main reason COVID-19 spread so rapidly in these plants and communities.

Urgent Policy Reforms Can Keep These Workers Safe—and You Can Have Your Nuggets, Too

So the next time you buy those chicken nuggets, think of how much worse their production has made the COVID-19 pandemic. More importantly, think of the workers who made them. And consider how you might support these workers, especially Tyson workers all across this country who have truly suffered some of the worst abuses and seen some of the biggest outbreaks in their workplaces.

Groups are fighting hard to take back control from Tyson, to rein in its abuse of workers and to protect them from COVID-19. Especially in the company’s home state of Arkansas, where it ranks as the third-largest employer. Worker advocate groups like Venceremos, led by Magaly Licolli—very much a Luke Skywalker type leading the Rebel Alliance—are fighting hard to organize workers in an effort to protect them from the routine abuses they encounter and ensure better working conditions and pay. Meanwhile, organizations like Food Chain Workers Alliance are dedicated to ensuring the federal government reins in the abuses of Tyson and other big food and agriculture companies. The Biden administration seems eager to rein them in, too

COVID-19 makes these actions—and not just words—extremely urgent. Will there be another SARS-CoV-2 variant that can more easily escape vaccinated immunity? Will another infectious disease like COVID-19 strike our country again in the future? How will these workers cope with such risks if we don’t do something now to protect them from the abuses of Tyson and other dominant meat and poultry companies nationally?

You can help. Join our efforts to urge the Biden Administration to better protect workers from COVID-19 and from the routine abuses they have and continue to experience at the hands of corporate giants like Tyson Foods.