Infectious Disease Protections for Meatpacking: Trends and Lessons From the COVID-19 Pandemic
The United States meatpacking industry experienced COVID-19 infections at significantly higher rates than other industries and even the general public, despite the meatpacking industry’s frequent use of specialized personal protective equipment (PPE) that protects against blood, bodily fluids, and infectious diseases.
This concerning trend underscores the need for more or better PPE, improved training on proper meatpacking protective clothing usage, and/or the need for more safety regulations and laws to curb disease spread—whether from COVID-19 or other communicable diseases.
The implications of these points should not be overstated. Not only would such changes better protect members of the meatpacking industry, but they would also protect the global population at large, given the impact that meatpacking facilities are known to have on surrounding communities. Let's discuss.
Rates of Infectious Diseases in the Meatpacking Industry
While there might be a proliferation of "lab-grown" meat and other potential market disrupters on the near horizon, the global meat industry is projected to maintain a significant presence in the worldwide economy for years to come. Current research suggests that the meat market value is expected to reach over $1.3 trillion by 2027, up from $897.5 billion in 2021.
With such a foothold in the U.S. and global economies, it's clear that the meatpacking industry (e.g., the slaughter, processing, packaging, and distribution of livestock raised for meat) can and does have a tremendous impact on public health—and often in ways that policymakers, stakeholders, and members of the public might not initially suspect.
Consider the alarming industry trends observed during the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance. The vast majority (90 percent) of all major U.S. meatpacking plants had documented COVID-19 cases in the pandemic's first year. And a 2021 peer-reviewed study published in Food Policy found that per capita COVID-19 infection rates increased by 110% in U.S. counties that had large beef packing facilities compared to counties without meatpacking plants. More specifically, major chicken and pork processing facilities saw transmission rates increase by 20% and 160%, respectively.
Based on their analysis, the investigators estimated that as many as 334,000 COVID-19 cases documented throughout the United States were attributable to large meatpacking operations—a startling estimate that includes "both direct infections to meatpacking workers as well as community spread outside the operations."
Furthermore, COVID-19 mortality and morbidity associated with large U.S. meatpacking plants, and especially plants processing beef and pork, generated over $11.6 billion in economic costs to the American rural economy—a figure that the investigators say is likely a dramatic understatement, as their estimates "do not account for the potential long-term costs associated with COVID-19-related illnesses, including chronic health-related issues and quality-of-life reductions," nor for the costs of medical treatment and investments made to improve workplace safety within the industry (more on this in the following section).
Other Infectious Diseases and Their Relationship to the Meatpacking Industry
While the novel coronavirus pandemic highlighted some major public health concerns regarding infectious disease spread, it should be noted that workers within the meatpacking industry—and, by extension, their loved ones and fellow community members outside meatpacking operations—may also be at increased risk of exposure to other types of infectious diseases, as well.
Historically, examples of this have included avian influenza and swine flu (e.g., H5N5, H1N1), which are viral infections that can be transmitted to humans via exposure to the droppings, mucus, and saliva of infected animals (while cases of avian flu are generally rare in humans, the economic impact of avian flu is massive, given that prior outbreaks have led to the death of several millions of birds). One 2006 study from Clinical Infectious Diseases, for example, confirmed that workers within the pig industry have significantly increased risk of swine flu infection via occupational exposure.
It could be argued that even West Nile virus, which is spread by the bite of an infected mosquito, could pose as a potential elevated threat to the meatpacking industry given the direct and indirect impact of meatpacking operations on wild and domesticated animals, as well as the greater environment (e.g., climate change, loss of biodiversity, and water usage).
Examples of bacterial infections that meatpacking workers may be at increased risk for include Brucellosis, livestock-associated MRSA, and Q fever, which can spread from animals to humans via direct contact and/or exposure to infected respiratory particles.
Why is the Meatpacking Industry More Susceptible to the Spread of Infectious Disease?
Beyond the impacts of animal husbandry and livestock processing on animal wildlife and the environment, what else could help explain the increased risk of infectious disease spread among the meatpacking industry?
According to the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), the meatpacking industry exposes workers to many "serious" safety and health risks, including increased exposure to biological hazards associated with the handling of live animals, including animal feces, blood, and other bodily fluids. These substances all carry the potential risk of disease exposure, infection, and transmission. Research points to at least some specific risk factors that can help us understand why this poses such a unique challenge for the meatpacking industry.
For instance, droplets and aerosols, which are the primary means of transmission of COVID-19 and other viral infections, can carry pathogens over extended distances (e.g., up to eight meters or more) under specific environmental conditions that are common and indeed often desired in meat processing facilities. These conditions include low humidity, low temperature, low air exchange rates, and recirculated air. Even the need for workers to speak more loudly and forcefully to be heard over the noise of heavy machinery may contribute to the spread of infected respiratory droplets.
Another factor is that viruses found in the bodily fluids of infected animals can often survive for extended periods of time on non-porous metallic surfaces and equipment. These types of surfaces are highly prevalent in meatpacking plants—perhaps, counterintuitively, because they are generally considered easier to clean and disinfect. However, improper cleansing methods may inadvertently spread pathogens around a facility and contribute to increased exposure.
Finally, meatpacking facilities are often designed in such a way as to force workers to congregate closely to each other—not only during their typical work tasks, but also during breaks. This literal closeness can prohibit the ability to maintain appropriate physical distancing, which may contribute to infectious disease spread.
Critical Infectious Disease Protections for Meatpacking: Essential PPE and Other Safety Measures
We know that both direct and indirect contact with infected animals and their bodily fluids are among the primary drivers of the transmission of zoonotic diseases within the meatpacking industry. For this reason, providing workers with appropriate meatpacking protective clothing is one of the most essential steps stakeholders must take to protect their workforce and their communities.
Proper type and use of PPE can prevent the inhalation and ingestion of pathogenic substances while simultaneously permitting workers to still work safely, comfortably, and efficiently.
According to OSHA, PPE required for the meatpacking industry include waterproof gloves, facemask, and goggles. Meatpacking PPE should be impenetrable by viral particles and other blood-borne pathogens, and all personnel should be thoroughly trained in how to don, doff, store, and dispose of their protective garments to reduce the risk of cross-contamination.
In addition to ensuring that all workers have access to and are trained in the proper use of meatpacking PPE, OSHA also highlights additional safe work practices that can help reduce the risk of infectious disease spread within the meat industry. These safe work practices should include:
- Worker education on common biological hazards and potential signs and symptoms of infection
- Strict hand hygiene practices
- Reinforced or updated engineering controls, including improved ventilation and sanitation measures
In the future, policies and regulations on a larger scale may also be needed to influence additional factors that may contribute to infectious disease risk within the meat industry, including animal vaccination efforts, water management systems, and more.
Despite the regular use of personal protective equipment during typical occupational tasks, workers within the meatpacking industry still suffered significantly higher rates of infection rates during the COVID-19 pandemic. To combat this concerning trend in the event of future infectious disease crises, policyholders and leaders within the meat industry must take steps to ensure that proper safety protocols are in place within their facilities