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Story Publication logo December 30, 2020

How We Did It: ‘They Think Workers Are Like Dogs.’ How Pork Plant Execs Sacrificed Safety for Profits

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A reporting project exploring the systematic abuses of agriculture workers in the food industry in...

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Illustration courtesy of USA TODAY and Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.
Illustration courtesy of USA TODAY and Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.

Since April, the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting and USA Today have reported on the impact of COVID-19 outbreaks at meatpacking plants and its impact on the workforce. 

Midwest Center's USA TODAY Agriculture Data Fellow Sky Chadde and USA TODAY reporters Rachel Axon and Kyle Bagenstose have led this coverage.

Here's 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.

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

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.

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

Axon, Bagenstose and Chadde spent months conducting interviews with more than a dozen current and former employees, sifting 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. 

Sky Chadde discusses the story below.

Q: How did this story come about?

A: Back in July, we were kicking around ideas for our next story. Since mid-April, we'd covered COVID-19 in meatpacking plants, and, while our stories employed local examples, our focus was primarily on the industry as a whole. But we decided that we should dive deep into one particular plant and essentially perform an autopsy on how the pandemic unfolded there. Since we already had done lots of reporting, we'd be in a position to know whether the plant we focused on was an outlier or a symbol. After tracking down leads at a couple of other plants, we agreed Triumph Foods in St. Joseph, Missouri, was the place to zero in on.

Q: What was the most surprising discovery you made while reporting it?

A: For me, it was just how little executives at the Triumph plant seemed to worry about the virus. One of their executives on Facebook questioned how deadly the virus is, even sharing a conspiracy theory on Facebook about it. Then there were all the half-measures at the plant to protect workers, such as erecting a tent as a second cafeteria so workers could space out — but not giving workers the extra time needed to walk outside. These half-steps toward safety were really surprising.

Q: Why do you think this article resonated with readers?

A: I think this story resonated with readers because of the personal stories we were able to find. For instance, we found a worker who cleaned every surface after leaving a room and didn't allow her young children to touch her. Most people can relate to that fear during the pandemic, that holding your loved ones could risk their lives. I also think we struck a chord because we were able to document clearly why and how executives wronged their employees. It was a powerful collection of facts, compellingly told.

Q: Have there been any new developments since its publication that might interest readers?

A: Local news outlets in St. Joseph, such as the TV station and newspaper, published their own stories based on our reporting. Whenever you spend a lot of time laser-focused on one place — in our case, five months — you're always hoping the locals will pay attention and follow up. We were happy to see that happened in this case.

COVID-19 Update: The connection between local and global issues–the Pulitzer Center's long standing mantra–has, sadly, never been more evident. We are uniquely positioned to serve the journalists, news media organizations, schools and universities we partner with by continuing to advance our core mission: enabling great journalism and education about underreported and systemic issues that resonate now–and continue to have relevance in times ahead. We believe that this is a moment for decisive action. Learn more about the steps we are taking.


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