As part of an investigation into the spread of coronavirus at meat plants, Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Cory Booker of New Jersey released responses from major producers that defended their operations during the pandemic.
The four biggest meatpackers -- Tyson Foods Inc., JBS USA, Cargill Inc. and Smithfield Foods Inc. -- pointed to measures such as staggering shifts and sanitation systems.
Cargill said it was raising "awareness" over maintaining distance, while Tyson said it installed barriers on production lines where "social distancing is not possible." JBS said it increased spacing in cafeterias, but didn't cite distancing measures for production lines.
Meanwhile, Smithfield gave a more straightforward response.
"For better or worse, our plants are what they are," Chief Executive Officer Ken Sullivan said. "Four walls, engineered design, efficient use of space, etc. Spread out? OK. Where? To say it is a challenge is an understatement."
Thousands of America's meat workers have fallen ill with coronavirus as infections spread through the factories, and dozens have died. While companies took steps to protect employees -- including by installing Plexiglas barriers, distributing protective equipment and setting up hand-washing stations -- experts and analysts have repeatedly warned that workers would remain vulnerable without an increase in physical distance on production lines.
The senators criticized the companies for not adequately allowing workers to keep 6 feet away from one another and for shipping pork and beef overseas to meet export orders during the outbreak.
None of the companies gave specifics on the number of cases or deaths at their plants.
"The covid-19 pandemic has made it painfully clear that these giant meatpackers can use their power to exploit their workers for profit," Warren said in a statement. "We also need to massively reform our broken food and farm system to give workers, farmers, and consumers real bargaining power."
Here are highlights of the companies' responses sent to the senators:
• Smithfield CEO Sullivan in a letter said plants weren't designed to operate in a pandemic and that the company installed physical barriers where social distancing was impossible for workers.
"Candidly, we are weary of critics in the media who are detached from the realities of this worldwide pandemic. Namely, that we must produce food, and somebody has to do it."
The company didn't furlough or lay off any of its 42,000 U.S. workers.
About 7,000 workers at six plants that were shuttered were still paid during halts.
Tens of millions of dollars were spent on personal protective equipment.
Worker pay, expanded health care and PPP costs will "total in the hundreds of millions of dollars for our company in just four months."
• JBS said it maintained operations only when it was safe to do so and that it was the first in the industry to voluntarily close a facility to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
"As cases in the U.S. continue to rise, it is clear that the interventions we have put in place in all of our facilities will become our new normal until a vaccine or more effective control measures are identified," said CEO Andre Nogueira.
JBS said it hired three independent epidemiologists to review its efforts. It also installed ultraviolet germicidal air sanitation and plasma air technology to neutralize potential viruses in plant ventilation systems.
• Cargill said: "Maintaining a safe workplace has long been a core value of our company. Cargill recognizes that the well-being of our plant employees is integral to our business and to the continuity of the food supply chain throughout the country. The company "continued to focus on education and awareness of social distancing inside and outside of work. This includes encouraging employees not to share food during meals."
Cargill said it installed protective barriers on the production floor between employees and "provided full face shields for personnel performing any job where the installation of a protective barrier is not feasible due to the movements inherent in the performance of the job."
• Tyson said it remains "committed to doing our best to modify and fine tune our protective measures in an effort to keep our team members safe while also providing nutritious food to America's families."
The company's safety measures include "creating barriers and/or requiring face shields on production lines where social distancing is not possible."
Tyson said it chartered space on international cargo flights to expedite delivery of face coverings, face shields, hand sanitizer and gloves by mid-April, which it said was earlier than some other companies.
Tyson said it was the first company in the industry to proactively initiate a testing strategy for its workers and has probably conducted more employee testing than any other company in the U.S.