COVID-19 in Gainseville, Georgia – the “Poultry Capital of the World”

CYNTHIA AHMED (Harvard University)


JOHN FOSSUM (University of Texas at Austin)

July 2020

Presentation Slide - Gainseville
Click here for Gainesville Team Slides from Virtual Presentation on July 27, 2020

Across the United States, the COVID-19 outbreak highlighted the significant inequalities already embedded in the fabric of work and labor in America. In the meat and poultry processing industry in particular, more than 16,000 workers were infected with COVID-19 in April and May alone. Furthermore, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 87 percent of those cases were among racial or ethnic minorities. Since May, these cases have certainly increased, with some reports from organizations tracking confirmed cases in meat and poultry processing plants putting the total as of July 17 at around 40,000 workers nationwide.

In order to better understand the landscape of the COVID-19 crisis in the meat and poultry processing industry, we focused on Gainesville, GA, a city recognized as the “Poultry Capital of the World.” Gainesville produces 31 million pounds of chicken and 7 million eggs daily. Gainesville’s poultry plants have also seen some of the highest prevalence of COVID-19 in the state, with workers working and living in close quarters, often without proper personal protective equipment (PPE). Census records report that 40 percent of Gainesville’s residents are Hispanic, and 25 percent of the population is foreign born. Recent Pew data suggests that 12 percent of Gainesville’s total population is made up of undocumented immigrants, the highest in the nation. As of May, 56 percent of total COVID-19 cases in Gainesville were among the Latinx population. Hall County, in which Gainesville is located, has twice the infection rate of neighboring Gwinnet County.



On this page:
Challenges and Directions for Further Research
Annotated Bibliography


Challenges and Directions for Further Research

We faced several research challenges while carrying out this project over the summer. In addition, our work uncovered a number of distinct areas that we think should be considered in future projects. We have listed relevant theoretical frameworks and potential research questions that we think are most promising below:


We experienced several limitations related to data collection and availability.


“Distancing” refers to the increased gulf in space and information between producers and consumers (e.g. chicken farmers and supermarket shoppers) and we found this to be a significant factor in shaping how COVID-19 affected workers.

Racial Capitalism

It is important to bring attention to the economic systems (manifested through poultry processing corporations) that exploit workers along racial lines, either explicitly or implicitly through systemic injustices.

Exploitation through Market Power

The extent to which workers, local governments, or both, are dependent on these industrial worksites for revenue and jobs plays a large role.  

Corporate Structural Power

We found that it is vital to identify where corporate power in the poultry processing industry truly lies.


Annotated Bibliography

Legislative Materials & Policy Documents
COVID-19 Administrative Guidance
Legal Proceedings & Case Documents
News & Media Articles
Academic Scholarship


Legislative Materials & Policy Documents

The White House. “Executive Order on Delegating Authority Under the DPA with Respect to Food Supply Chain Resources During the National Emergency Caused by the Outbreak of COVID-19.” Executive Orders. 28 April 2020.

Gainesville City Council. “Special Called Meeting – COVID-19 Update.” Meeting Recordings. March 2020-May 2020.

Gainesville City Council. “Resolution BR-2020-17, Resscinding Resolutions BR-2020-13, BR-2020-14, BR-2020-15 AND BR-2020015 Related to COVID-19 and for Provisions related to same.” April 3, 2020. 


COVID-19 Administrative Guidance

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Meat and Poultry Processors: Interim Guidance from CDC and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.” Coronavirus Disease: Community, Work & School. July 9, 2020. 

U.S. Department of Agriculture. “USDA To Implement President Trump’s Executive Order on Meat and Poultry Processors.” Press Releases, April 28, 2020. 

Waltenburg, Michelle A., et al. “Update: COVID-19 Among Workers in Meat and Poultry Processing Facilities – United States, April-May 2020.” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 69, no. 27. July 10, 2020. 


Legal Proceedings and Case Documents

Food Chain Workers Alliance. “FCWA joins civil rights complaint challenging meat processing corporation.” July 14, 2020.

US Department of Justice. “Justice Department Settles Immigration-Related Discrimination Claim Against Georgia Poultry Processing Company.” Office of Public Affairs. October 9, 2018. 


News and Media Articles

Bagenstose, Kyle and Chadde, Sky. “USDA let poultry plants put workers close together even as they got sick from coronavirus.”, April 25, 2020.

Bishop Jr., Hon. Sanford D. US Congressman from Georgia. “Georgia’s Poultry Industry and Its Impact on the Local Economy and Global Trade.” Op-ed, US House of Representatives. accessed October 5, 2020.

Burke, Tom. “Georgia politicians, activists demand action for poultry workers.” Fight Back! News, May 13, 2020.

Carlisle, Madeleine. “Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp Sued to Block Atlanta’s Face Mask Ordinance. Here’s What to Know.” Time, July 18, 2020.

Edwards, Johnny. “Georgia companies accused of federal violations got COVID relief loans.” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 8, 2020.

Erwin, Nicole. “Too Fast For Safety? Poultry Industry Wants To Speed Up The Slaughter Line.” NPR, October 23, 2017.

Fowler, Hayley. “Workers flee Georgia poultry plant amid false rumors of ICE roundups, officials say.” The Telegraph, August 16, 2019.

Funk, Josh. “Stopping virus a huge challenge at crowded US meat plants.” Lincoln Journal Star, April 23, 2020.

“Gainesville women organizes fundraiser for poultry plant workers affected by COVID-19.” FOX 5 Atlanta, last modified June 12, 2020. 

Green, Emily. “Coronavirus Takes Toll on Poultry Workers In North Georgia. Threatens Industry’s Well-Being. WABE, May 19, 2020.

Hansen, Zachary. “Georgia activist charged with terroristic threats against cops over social media posts.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 26, 2020.

Hemel, Daniel. “OPINION EXCHANGE: No, Trump Didn’t Order Meat-Processing Plants to Reopen.” Star Tribune, May 4, 2020.

Kempner, Matt. “OSHA court case shows limits on safety inspections.” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, October 23, 2018.

Lee, Maggie. “Gainesville’s ‘Poultry Capital of the World’ braces for COVID-19 spread.” Georgia Recorder, April 24, 2020.

Mayer, Jane. “How Trump is helping tycoons exploit the pandemic.” New Yorker. July 13, 2020.

McCaffrey, Shannon. “Emory team brings COVID-19 testing, education to poultry workers in rural Ga.” Woodruff Health Sciences Center, July 1, 2020.

National Employment Law Project, National Immigration Law Center, and OSH Law Project. “FAQ: Immigrant Workers’ Rights and COVID-19.” National Employment Law Project, April 10, 2020. 

Redmon, Jeremy. “In ‘Poultry Capital,’ stakes are high amid Trump immigration crackdown.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, September 19, 2019.

Redmon, Jeremy. “Hundreds of Georgia’s poultry workers have tested positive for COVID-19.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 30, 2020. 

Scheurich, Roy E. and Joseph M. Jacobs. “A Shocking Instance of Brutal Employer Aggression: Antiunion Violence in a ‘Union-Free’ Town.” History Matters, accessed October 5, 2020. 

Suggs, Ernie. “Spread of coronavirus has Georgia’s booming poultry industry on edge.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 17, 2020.

Thompson, Shayla and Deborah Berkowitz. “USDA Allows Poultry Plants to Raise Line Speeds, Exacerbating Risk of COVID-19 Outbreaks and Injury.” National Employment Law Project. June 17, 2020.

Watt AgNet. Top Companies: Top US chicken producers grow production, plan expansion. Watt Poultry USA Magazine. March 2020.



Academic Scholarship

Alkon, Alison H., Sarah Bowen, Yuki Kato, and Kara Young. “Unequally vulnerable: a food justice approach to racial disparities in COVID-19 cases.” Agriculture and Human Values 37 (2020): 535-536.

Apostolidis, Paul. “Meatpackers are deeply vulnerable to COVID-19. Expect a reckoning for US workers.” LSE COVID-19 Blog, May 5, 2020.

Hendrickson, Mary K. “Covid lays bare the brittleness of a concentrated and consolidated food system.” Agriculture and Human Values 12 (May 2020): 1-2.

Pirtle, Whitney N. “Racial capitalism: A fundamental cause of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic inequities in the United States.” Health Education and Behavior 47, no. 4 (August 2020): 504-508.




National Governors Association. “Governors’ Power and Authority.” Accessed October 5, 2020.

Douglas, Leah. “Mapping COVID-19 Outbreaks in the Food System.”  Food & Environment Reporting Network, accessed October 5, 2020. 

US Department of Labor. “Occupational Safety and Health Administration.” Establishment Search, accessed October 5, 2020. 

USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. “Meat, Poultry and Egg Product Inspection Directory.” Accessed October 5, 2020. 

USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. “Salmonella Initiative Program (SIP) Participants Table.” Last updated June 2020.