“They Died for Your Chicken Nuggets”: The Human Cost of Our Food Supply
The Future of the Tyson Wrongful Death Lawsuit
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On December 30, 2021, the Eighth Circuit Court ruled that Tyson was not acting under federal guidelines when it reopened its food processing plants back in April 2020.
The ruling is part of a wrongful death lawsuit against Tyson by the families of employees at the Tyson plant in Waterloo, Iowa, who died in the spring of 2020.
If you don’t remember the case, there is a reason. There are a lot of complaints against Tyson Foods. Recently, Hy-Vee filed a lawsuit alleging Tyson has been illegally price-fixing, which is one of many price-fixing complaints against the company. In 2021, the Food Chain Workers Alliance filed an administrative civil rights complaint against Tyson, alleging that Tyson discriminated against racial minorities through its COVID workplace policies. And in December 2020, seven Tyson executives were fired for participating in a betting ring that took bets on which workers would contract COVID first.
But here is a necessary reminder: On March 13, 2020, then-President Donald Trump declared COVID-19 to be a national emergency. As Americans panicked, buying up toilet paper and stressing over the availability of cleaning supplies, both the president and then-Vice President Mike Pence assured the public that grocery store shelves would remain stocked.
While people across America went to work from their homes, or went on unemployment, employees at meat and food processing plants continued to go into work. Work in the food processing industry is already hard enough. Workers stand side by side, swiftly slicing meat in freezing temperatures, hands wet with blood and flesh, trying to keep up with grueling line speeds. In her book Meat Packing America, Kristy Nabhan-Warren describes visiting the Tyson Plant in Columbus Junction and watching the work, noting, “All around us, there was sawing, cutting, peeling, and disemboweling. The kinetics of light and sound. The entire process had to move quickly so bacteria did not have a chance to invade the meat.” The plant, a Tyson executive tells Nabhan-Warren, processes 10,000 hogs each day.
“And not even just the hamburgers, not even just the basic things that people were missing in grocery stores, It’s dinosaur chicken nuggets. People are dying for your dinosaur chicken nuggets.”
— Alejandro Murguia-Ortiz
And in March of 2020, even hospitals didn’t have enough personal protective equipment. Americans were being told not to buy masks. Meat packing plant workers had no protection against the onslaught of the novel virus.
In March and April of 2020, the Tyson plant in Waterloo was the site of a huge outbreak of COVID-19. And it wasn’t just because the company was ill-prepared for the virus. Tyson fought to release testing data to local health departments, was accused of lying about the threat of the disease to interpreters, and allegedly offered incentives to keep sick workers on the job. And in April of 2020, the Trump Administration approved line-speed waivers that allowed Tyson to speed up production. The result was the loss of human life.
A study published in December of 2020, connected 8 percent of the COVID deaths in America to meat packing plants.
Tyson didn’t answer my specific questions about worker safety during the Omicron surge or the allegations in this story. But Tyson spokesperson Gary Mickelson has previously challenged the narrative that Tyson was the site of outbreaks, relying on the tired line that testing yields more positive results. It was a popular excuse in 2020, used by governors and politicians and executives who wanted to downplay the spread of the disease.
Alejandro Murguia-Ortiz can’t forget. His parents are meat packing plant workers in Sioux City. His father, Martin, worked at Tyson but has since gone on long-term disability. And his mother, Michela, worked at Smithfield. In 2020, Smithfield faced several OSHA violations and reached a settlement with the U.S. government and changed health procedures. Murguia-Ortiz told me in an interview that he remembers the frustration and fear of those early days. Many food processing plant workers are immigrants, and Iowa’s English-only laws made communicating the seriousness of the disease difficult. As his family members contracted COVID, Murguia-Ortiz had to take a leave from his job and help take care of his family.
According to the Food Environment and Reporting Network (FERN), Tyson plants were the site of the largest COVID outbreaks in the food supply chain. And those are just the cases that were reported. FERN stopped tracking cases September 8, 2021, well before the Omicron surge. But in the spring of 2020, one-third of workers at the Tyson plant in Waterloo were testing positive for COVID. Those numbers, according to the Atlantic, were 50 percent more than in New York City, which was considered the epicenter of the disease.
It was a difficult time, one that changed how Murguia-Ortiz sees power and the role of government in his community. He was frustrated with stories about pigs being slaughtered because of plant closures, which seemed to erase stories of workers dying.
“And not even just the hamburgers, not even just the basic things that people were missing in grocery stores,” Murguia-Ortiz told me. “It’s like dinosaur chicken nuggets. People are dying for your dinosaur chicken nuggets.”
Yet, forgetting is what Tyson is counting on. Adam Pulver, a lawyer with Public Citizen Litigation Group who represented the plaintiffs in the Eighth Circuit Court and has faced Tyson often in lawsuits, noted that Tyson has some of the most expensive lawyers in the business. “They have the money to file appeal after appeal after appeal. Eventually, the public forgets and the plaintiffs settle and Tyson goes on.”
After the lawsuit was filed, Tyson appealed to the federal court arguing that they were acting under the orders of the federal government. But the Eighth Circuit Court disagreed, pointing out that Tyson was able to shut down plants, proving that it was independent of the federal government and not crucial infrastructure. The ruling notes, “Tyson has failed to show that it was performing a basic governmental task or operating pursuant to a federal directive in March and April of 2020.” In sum, chicken nuggets are not an essential service.
In response to my questions, Mickelson sent a generic statement noting, “We’re saddened by the loss of any of our team members to Covid-19 and are committed to protecting the health and safety of our people. We’ve implemented a host of protective measures in our facilities and in 2021 required all of our U.S. team members to be vaccinated. We’re reviewing the court’s decision and, while we’re disappointed, we’ll be considering next steps in the legal process.”
But Pulver and Murguia-Ortiz tell me things have gotten worse now that workers are vaccinated. Vaccinated workers still can contract and are contracting COVID, but now there are fewer protections.
The Eighth Circuit ruling sends the lawsuit back to the state court. But Pulver anticipates more delays and more appeals. It doesn’t matter if they are successful or not. “Tyson has hired probably, if not the most, one of the most expensive lawyers in the country to handle these cases, showing what their real interest is,” Pulver told me. “What they’re paying him obviously could be money going to help the families and communities that were destroyed by COVID and their failure to take appropriate steps in the earliest days.”
And each expensive legal tactic draws out the clock, takes money from the plaintiffs, who are grieving families, and hopes that as time goes on, we will forget. And we already have. Pulver told me about going to a wedding where he told a guest what case he was working on. “Why wasn’t that national news?” the person wondered.
But Murguia-Ortiz refuses to forget.
Murguia-Ortiz is running for the Iowa state House and told me that he doesn’t think he can change much, not in a Republican-run state. He’s young, but he’s realistic. What he can do, is remind people of their power. “This lack of power that was being communicated by news and media stories and that I think just reinforced many of the workers' beliefs that they don't have power,” Murguia-Ortiz explained. “But the reality is that workers do have power. In 2020, people stayed home so the company couldn't open.” And he points to the strikes across America that happened during the summer of 2021.
“There is power in the community,” he says. “We have a voice.”
Further Reading: Laura Belin, an Iowa-based journalist wrote about Alejandro Murguia-Ortiz’s campaign. And Iowa Public Radio ran a story on his family. This was a very good article in The Atlantic about what was happening at meat-packing plants. This is a story about the faster line speeds. This is a detailed story about the initial complaint. This Pro Publica story is very thorough. Olivia Paschal has this reporting on meatpacking plants in Arkansas.
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