Smithfield Foods pork plant faces OSHA fine from outbreak

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Federal regulators said Thursday they have cited Smithfield Foods for failing to protect employees from exposure to the coronavirus at the company’s Sioux Falls plant, an early hot spot for virus infections that hobbled American meatpacking plants.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration found that employees were working closely together and exposed to the coronavirus. It also found that leading up to the first known infections at the plant on March 23, Smithfield did not do enough to space them out or provide other safety measures like face coverings or physical barriers.

The citation included the latest assessment of the virus’ impact at the Sioux Falls plant, with four workers killed by COVID-19, at least 1,294 infected and 43 hospitalized. Only two deaths among employees had been previously known.

Smithfield Foods, which is based in Virginia, said it planned to contest the citation and $13,494 fine. Keira Lombardo, a spokeswoman for the company, called the citation “wholly without merit” in a statement and argued the company had taken “extraordinary measures” to protect employees from infections.

OSHA conducted an investigation that spanned months as it conducted 60 interviews and reviewed over 20,000 pages of documents, according to Lombardo. She blamed coronavirus infections in Sioux Falls for causing the outbreak at the plant

Employees at the plant have said Smithfield did not do enoug h to prevent inspections in the plant, where workers labored elbow-to-elbow as they processed nearly 5% of the country’s pork. The union at the plant, the United Food and Commercial Workers, has said that it had been attempting to negotiate for more coronavirus protections leading up to the outbreak. After cases kept accumulating, Smithfield shuttered its plan t for nearly three weeks.

But large outbreaks at meatpacking plants across the nation soon followed. The United Food and Commercial Workers, the largest union representing meatpacking employees, has counted 122 meatpacking worker deaths.

Marc Perrone, the president of United Food and Commercial Workers, argued the fine did not go far enough to punish a company that makes billions of dollars in a year.

“This so-called ‘fine’ is a slap on the wrist for Smithfield, and a slap in the face of the thousands of American meatpacking workers who have been putting their lives on the line to help feed America since the beginning of this pandemic,” he said.

Meatpacking companies have aggressively defended their role in providing the nation’s food supply, warning that if plants closed because of the pandemic, grocery stores shelves would see shortages of meat. After President Donald Trump signed an executive order in Apri l deeming meatpacking plants as critical infrastructure, they mostly stayed open.

The country’s slaughterhouses rebounded, and commercial red meat and pork production for this year has even exceeded last year, according to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

OSHA began investigating Smithfield’s Sioux Falls plant on April 20, shortly after a team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention toured the facility to offer recommendations on how meatpacking plants could operate during the pandemic.

Smithfield CEO Kenneth Sullivan has defended how the company handled the virus outbreak, sending a blistering, 14-page letter to Senate Democrats Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker after they inquired into how meatpackers have protected workers. Hundreds of employees signed on to Sullivan’s response. The company has asked its employees to sign onto a statement saying it took “aggressive measures” to protect their health.

BJ Motley, the president of the union for Smithfield workers in Sioux Falls, said Smithfield has implemented most of the measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prevent infections at meatpacking plants. But he said workers still gather closely together in the plant.

But with a rising demand for meat and a shortage of employees after the outbreak, Motley said, “They are pressing their workers a lot harder now.”

Stephen is a correspondent based in South Dakota.