The Meatpacking Industry in Rural America During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The meatpacking industry has received increased attention in recent months, as plants began to witness outbreaks of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) at very high rates, with some plants temporarily shutting down. Just over 500,000 people work in the meatpacking industry in the United States. Many plants are in cities such as Sioux Falls, SD, where meatpacking constitutes just one of many major employers. However, several other plants are in much smaller municipalities such as Dakota City, NE, and Worthington, MN, where meatpacking represents the primary employer in the county. There are 56 counties in the United States where meatpacking is estimated to account for more than 20 percent of all county employment. Of these 56 meatpacking-dependent counties, 49 are in rural (nonmetro) counties and 7 are in urban (metro) counties. While these counties make up 2.5 percent of all rural counties and 0.6 percent of urban counties, they represent 19.0 percent and 2.9 percent, respectively, of all meatpacking employment in the United States.

The employment dependence of these counties on a single industry makes meatpacking—officially termed animal slaughtering and processing in the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS)—an industry unlike any other in the United States. The uniqueness of the employment concentration of the meatpacking industry (NAICS 3116) can be placed into context by examining the other 85 manufacturing industries categorized at the NAICS four-digit industry level. There are only 91 other counties in the United States where a manufacturing industry accounts for at least 20 percent of County employment. The next highest industry in terms of the number of counties with at least 20 percent of employment in a single industry is motor vehicle parts manufacturing, with only 12 counties, compared with the 56 meatpacking-dependent counties.

Even before the outbreak of COVID-19, the 49 rural meatpacking-dependent counties were facing a comparatively high prevalence of poverty. ERS defines high-poverty counties as those that have poverty rates of 20 percent or higher, using the 2014–2018 five-year estimates of the American Community Survey. Using this definition, 34.7 percent of these meatpacking-dependent counties were defined as high-poverty counties, compared with 26.2 percent in all other rural counties in the country.

The confirmed number of cases of COVID-19 in these meatpacking-dependent counties has far outpaced those seen in all other counties across the country.

Data on confirmed COVID-19 cases as of June 30, 2020, from the Johns Hopkins University U.S. County Level COVID-19 Tracking Map shows that in early April, when the first plant closures occurred, there was little difference in the number of confirmed cases per 10,000 population between these meatpacking-dependent counties—both rural and urban—and all other rural counties. Meatpacking-dependent counties had about half the number of confirmed cases per 10,000 than seen in all urban counties. Starting in mid-April, confirmed cases per 10,000 in both rural and urban meatpacking-dependent counties grew rapidly.

While still facing much higher numbers of cases than non-meatpacking-dependent counties, both rural and urban meatpacking-dependent counties started to flatten their curves. At the beginning of June, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases per 10,000 population in the rural meatpacking-dependent counties was more than 7 times larger than all other rural counties and nearly 3.5 times larger than all metro counties. By the end of the month, these numbers had fallen to just under 6 times larger than all other rural counties and just over 3 times larger than all other metro counties.

Explore USDA Coronavirus resources for meat processors.

Last updated: Friday, July 31, 2020

For more information, contact: Thomas Krumel