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

There was increased attention to the meatpacking industry recently as high rates of outbreaks of the coronavirus (COVID-19) caused some meatpacking plants to temporarily shut 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 is 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 is the primary employer in the county. There are 56 counties in the United States—49 in rural (nonmetro) counties and 7 in urban (metro) counties—where meatpacking is estimated to account for more than 20 percent of all county employment. 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)—a unique industry 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. Motor vehicle parts manufacturing is the next highest industry with the number of counties with at least 20 percent of employment in a single industry, 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 with poverty rates of 20 percent or higher, using the 2014–18 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 August 1, 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 100,000 population between these meatpacking-dependent counties and all other rural counties. Starting in mid-April, confirmed cases per 100,000 in rural meatpacking-dependent counties grew rapidly.

The two-week moving average number of cases rose in meatpacking-dependent counties through the remainder of April, reaching a peak of 315 cases per 100,000 by the end of the month. This two-week moving average was more than 10 times the prevalence seen in other rural counties. Even though cases in meatpacking-dependent counties started to decline in the month of May, they remained significantly higher compared to other rural counties, falling to just under seven times the number of average weekly cases by the end of May.

Partial plant closures and increased social distancing protocols were implemented at meatpacking plants across the country starting in late April and early June. These preventative measures appear to have impacted infection rates, as June saw the beginning of a sharp reduction in the number of cases per 100,000 for these meatpacking-dependent counties. Meatpacking-dependent counties currently have 1.25 times the two-week moving average number of cases per 100,000 compared to other rural counties.                

Explore USDA Coronavirus resources for meat processors.

Last updated: Friday, August 28, 2020

For more information, contact: Thomas Krumel