As you read this, remember FSIS’s Mission Statement:
The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is the public health agency in the U.S. Department of Agriculture responsible for ensuring that the nation’s commercial supply of meat, poultry, and egg products is safe, wholesome, and correctly labeled and packaged.
And, remember that none of our food is safe without the “frontline” workers in the plants killing and cutting our meat, and the “frontline” inspectors who assure the public that the USDA stamp means a damn thing.
USA Today reported today that the meatpacking industry hit a grim milestone this week when the number of coronavirus cases tied to outbreaks at its beleaguered plants passed 10,000, according to USA TODAY and Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting tracking. At least 170 plants in 29 states have had one or more workers test positive for the coronavirus. Some of those workers also have infected others, which is included in the count. At least 45 workers have died.
But, President Trump and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue ordered and “exhorted” the plants to reopen.
However, COVID-19 outbreaks have prompted at least 40 meat slaughtering and processing plant closures – lasting anywhere from one day to several weeks – since the start of the pandemic. Many are still shuttered.
Some retailers and consumer clubs have limited the amount of meat a consumer can purchase out of a fear of a meat shortage.
According to the report, the CDC and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration on April 26 released guidelines for meatpacking plants to ensure worker safety. The guidelines suggested plants implement social distancing measures, such as spacing out workers on the line or in the break rooms or putting visual cues showing six feet of distance on the floor. From the CDC as of May 1:
Persons in congregate work and residential locations are at increased risk for transmission and acquisition of respiratory infections.
COVID-19 cases among U.S. workers in 115 meat and poultry processing facilities were reported by 19 states. Among approximately 130,000 workers at these facilities, 4,913 cases and 20 deaths occurred. Factors potentially affecting risk for infection include difficulties with workplace physical distancing and hygiene and crowded living and transportation conditions.
Improving physical distancing, hand hygiene, cleaning and disinfection, and medical leave policies, and providing educational materials in languages spoken by workers might help reduce COVID-19 in these settings and help preserve the function of this critical infrastructure industry.
But, companies know that working conditions and the speed of the slaughter process does not readily allow for social distancing nor safety.
On April 28, UFCW International President Marc Perrone released the following statement:
To protect America’s food supply, America’s meatpacking workers must be protected. The reality is that these workers are putting their lives on the line every day to keep our country fed during this deadly outbreak, and at least 20 meatpacking workers have tragically died from coronavirus while more than 5,000 workers have been hospitalized or are showing symptoms. For the sake of all our families, we must prioritize the safety and security of these workers.
While we share the concern over the food supply, today’s executive order to force meatpacking plants to stay open must put the safety of our country’s meatpacking workers first. Simply put, we cannot have a secure food supply without the safety of these workers. We urge the Administration to immediately enact clear and enforceable safety standards that compel all meatpacking companies to provide the highest level of protective equipment through access to the federal stockpile of PPE, ensure daily testing is available for workers and their communities, enforce physical distancing at all plants, and provide full paid sick leave for any workers who are infected. Additionally, to protect the food supply and ensure these safety standards for workers are enforced, these plants must be constantly monitored by federal inspectors and workers must have access to representation to ensure their rights are not violated.
All of our country’s elected leaders – federal and state – must work together to ensure that we keep these essential workers safe and our country’s food supply secure.
These workers are important and are at risk. As I said to Business Insider last week:
If that (the plant) was a grade school full of white kids, we’d all be freaking out.
On April 24, Bloomberg reported that almost 1,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture food inspectors, or about 15% of the workforce, are off the job as the coronavirus outbreak left workers sick, quarantined or facing a high risk to health, figures provided by the union showed.
Two inspectors have died from the virus since March. The USDA said Friday that 137 inspectors tested positive for the virus, and 125 are self-quarantined.
These inspectors are also vital and without them the FSIS’s Mission Statement is meaningless.
Bottomline, protect the workers and inspectors and you will be able to buy your pork chops, bacon, hamburgers or steaks.