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Since April, the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting in collaboration with USA Today have reported on the impact of COVID-19 outbreaks at meatpacking plants. Today, we share with you a behind-the-scenes look at one of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks at a meatpacking plant in the country - Triumph Foods in St. Joseph, Missouri.

With support from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, we deeply examine the outbreak at Triumph Foods, which sickened hundreds of meatpacking workers and killed at least four. 

A team of reporters spent months conducting interviews with more than a dozen current and former employees, sifting through through thousands of pages of company emails and government records and visiting the town where the plant is located. 

The outbreak at Triumph Foods tells the story of the meatpacking industry's response to the pandemic as a whole and its impact on those who work to keep meat on America's dinner table. 

‘They think workers are like dogs.’ How pork plant execs sacrificed safety for profits. 

By Rachel Axon, Kyle Bagenstose and Kevin Crowe, USA TODAY; Sky Chadde, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

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This story is part of a collaborative reporting initiative between USA TODAY and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting and is supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

This story is embargoed for republication until Nov. 22, 2020.

 

Bernardo Serpa cut pork legs eight hours a day, six days a week.

He made the same cut roughly 12,000 times per shift, wielding a sharp knife as a production line worker at the second-largest pork processing plant in the country.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit. In one week, dozens of his colleagues at the Triumph Foods plant in St. Joseph, Missouri, got sick. It prompted the company to test all of its 2,800 employees. In late April, large white tents appeared outside.

When it was Serpa’s turn, he got his nose swabbed. Then he went back inside where he stood elbow to elbow, shoulder to shoulder, with dozens of other potentially infected employees to await the results. 

They think workers are like dogs. If we don’t work, they get rid of us. And in any case they get new workers.His test came back negative, but his relief was short-lived. One week later, the Cuban immigrant was among hundreds of his co-workers to contract the coronavirus in what would become one of the nation’s largest meatpacking plant outbreaks.

Serpa would spend nearly four months in the hospital, much of it in a coma. 

On Oct. 16, he died.

USA TODAY and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting spent five months piecing together the pivotal moments in the Triumph Foods outbreak, interviewing more than a dozen current and former workers and examining thousands of pages of government records.

The reporting found Triumph failed to respond with effective safeguards during a crucial period from mid-March to mid-April that could have contained the spread of COVID-19. And local health officials, who received complaints from employees and their family members, missed several opportunities to investigate. They instead took the company’s word that it was doing all it could to protect its workers.

As outbreaks spread through meatpacking plants across the country, some experts warned that Triumph and others in the industry would choose production over worker safety. Since then, workers and their unions have accused companies of doing the bare minimum to protect staff and time and again finding ways to keep their lines running.

At the start of the pandemic, Triumph Foods employees worked up to 10 hours a day, crammed side by side. Even after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended the general public wear face masks, the company did not require them for weeks. It initially did not screen sick employees and implemented a bonus program that rewarded workers for perfect attendance even as they complained and fell ill.

On April 19, the day before the plant’s first positive case, Triumph’s board chairman Glenn Stolt shared a coronavirus conspiracy theory video on his Facebook page that claims 5G cell towers were instead to blame for illnesses, that the virus is less deadly than the seasonal flu, and that the CDC’s recommendation on 6-foot social distancing was “misinformation.”

Weeks later, nearly 500 Triumph employees – roughly a fifth of its workforce  – tested positive. Four workers, including Serpa, have since died.

Executives at Triumph Foods had known for weeks that meatpacking plants were particularly susceptible to COVID-19. By the end of April, thousands of meat plant workers across the nation were sick. At least 30 had died.

Factories in many industries – including at least 33 meatpacking plants – had shut down temporarily, sending workers home to protect them from infection. Triumph never did.

Instead, the company worked behind the scenes to lobby state and federal officials to push back on safety recommendations and keep its plant open. 

READ MORE
We have been tracking outbreaks in meatpacking plants since the beginning of the pandemic. Using news reports, company press releases, state and federal data and original reporting, we're keeping track of the coronavirus's effect on the meatpacking industry.

As of Nov. 9, there have been at least 42,000 reported positive cases tied to meatpacking facilities in at least 470 plants in 40 states, and at least 214 reported worker deaths in at least 51 plants in 27 states.
Click here to see our meatpacking data and graphics
More of our meatpacking coverage

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Confidential coronavirus outbreak data shows undisclosed incidents at prisons, workplaces, schools, meatpacking plants across Illinois

GRAPHIC: Design of South Dakota meatpacking plant contributed to high number of COVID-19 cases, CDC says


Arkansas poultry plants are struggling with COVID-19. Hispanic workers are facing the worst of it.

COVID-19 disproportionately affects minority meatpacking workers. These groups say racial discrimination is the reason.

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