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.

Data on confirmed COVID-19 cases as of December 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 new daily cases rose in meatpacking-dependent counties through the remainder of April, reaching a peak of nearly 50 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 daily 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 new cases per 100,000 for these meatpacking-dependent counties. Both meatpacking-dependent and other rural counties saw modest declines in the two-week moving average number of new daily cases per 100,000 through mid-September. Since September 15, 2020, all rural counties have seen a surge in average new cases per 100,000. During November, all rural counties observed a new high in cases. A second peak for meatpacking-dependent rural counties has emerged and is 1.5 times higher than during the initial outbreak from April. Even though meatpacking-dependent counties are dealing with a second wave, the surge in rural new cases does not appear to be driven by new outbreaks in the meatpacking industry. Meatpacking-dependent counties have maintained an almost identical pattern to other rural counties for a fifth straight month. The convergence that began at the end of October continued through November, with meatpacking-dependent counties having fewer two-week moving average number of new daily cases per 100,000 compared to other rural counties for the first time since the beginning of April.

Explore USDA Coronavirus resources for meat processors.