Tyson Foods lifts mask mandate for some workers, but not at meat plants

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FILE PHOTO: A Tyson Foods employee puts on a second protective mask outside of the company's meat processing plant in Waterloo

By Tom Polansek

CHICAGO -Tyson Foods Inc lifted a mask mandate for fully vaccinated employees at some U.S. facilities on Tuesday, but those at meatpacking plants must continue wearing masks for now.

The meat processor joins major employers like Amazon.com and Walmart in relaxing mask requirements.

Tyson said its policy applies to employees at facilities not inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). The agency inspects meatpacking plants, a hot spot for COVID-19 outbreaks early in the pandemic.

Employees at corporate offices, distribution centers, feed mills and some production facilities inspected by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration can go maskless if state and local laws allow it, Tyson spokesman Derek Burleson said.

The company will work with the USDA to potentially extend the policy to workers in meatpacking plants who are not in contact with government inspectors, Burleson said. He added that the policy does not yet impact most Tyson employees.

“We’re definitely working with USDA on what this might look like at each of our FSIS-inspected facilities,” Burleson said. “We’re working to try to expand this to more facilities.”

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The USDA requires plant workers to wear masks when federal inspectors are present at facilities in geographic areas with “substantial” or “high” community COVID-19 transmission. An agency spokesman had no immediate comment on Tyson.

Tyson said it is easing mask mandates because of lower infection rates and “extremely low rates of serious illness” among employees. The company last year required workers to be vaccinated.

COVID-19 hit the U.S. meatpacking industry hard at the start of the pandemic, when thousands of worker infections temporarily shut slaughterhouses. In January, rising cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant again forced plants to slow production.

Tyson said it will continue to provide masks for employees who chose to wear them and watch for new coronavirus variants. The company has said it spent $810 million on preventive COVID-19 measures.

(Reporting by Tom PolansekEditing by Nick Zieminski and Marguerita Choy)