Paltry fines for meat processors

There is nothing like hitting multi-billion-dollar companies right in the P&L when it comes to major health and safety failures. And certainly nothing like that happened when the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fined two of the biggest meat processing companies USD29,000 (£24,200) for allowing more than 42,000 workers to contract Covid-19 while at work. This works out at USD0.68 per infected employee across the entire industry, or USD126 per death.
To give this risible fine some context; the two penalised firms Smithfields and JBS made USD14bn and USD57.1 bn in revenues last year. As PIRC has reported for several months, the global meat processing industry has been literally plagued by coronavirus, and has been criticised for seemingly failing to provide employees with a workplace which OSHA describes as ’free from recognised hazards that were causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees’ who were working on top of each other during the outbreak.
In addition to delivering a decidedly underwhelming punishment, the OSHA has been accused of dragging its heels and taking far too long to act. Mark Lauritsen, vice president and director of food processing, packing and manufacturing with the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) told the Washing Post that the administration turned a blind eye and was only acting now as part of a political point scoring exercise. The whole sorry affair looks even more dismal for OSHA when you consider that just two citations have been completed out of more than 10,000 complaints.
To be fair to JBS, in May the company donated USD120m to help fight the pandemic of which USD50m went to the US. However, if employees are left to rely on the authorities to protect their personal safety, judging by the OSHA response there seems little hope for improvement.
Incredibly, there are moves afoot in the US that could both increase risks to workers. Although line speeds have been identified as one factor that can affect the risk of infection, the Food Safety and Inspection Service, part of the Department of Agriculture, is looking at allowing faster line speeds in poultry processing.
We expect food processing to continue to be a Covid hotspot, and will be publishing a note on the sector shortly.

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