Coronavirus outbreaks triggers call for more protections for meat plant workers

Coronavirus outbreaks triggers call for more protections for meat plant workers
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A series of coronavirus outbreaks in meat packing plants have lead workers and lawmakers to call for improved working conditions.  

Last week, Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork producer, shut down a pork processing plant in South Dakota that accounts for up to 5 percent of production after more than 500 of its workers were infected and one died from COVID-19.

Tysons Food, Cargill and JBS, have also been forced to close plants after workers were infected. Tysons Foods on Monday partially reopened a plant it closed down after two employees died of COVID-19 and 148 others tested positive for the virus.

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A U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) spokesperson told The Hill that 137 food inspectors at the department have tested positive for the virus. Federal inspectors were directed to find or make their own masks and face coverings on April 9. 

Rep. Jim CostaJames (Jim) Manuel CostaLet's support and ensure the safety of workers risking so much for us Five factors to watch in the meat supply chain crisis Lawmakers, union leaders call for increased safety measures in meat plants MORE (D-Calif.), a member of the House Agriculture Committee, called the directive by the USDA “troubling" in a letter sent Friday to USDA Secretary Sonny PerdueGeorge (Sonny) Ervin PerdueThe looming USDA deadline to guarantee access to school meals Trump: food chain 'almost working perfectly again' Tyson poultry plant remains closed past USDA head's reopening goal MORE.

“Shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) are well known and given the Vice President’s April 16th public pledge to ensure every frontline food worker has a mask, I hope this directive is no longer needed,” Costa wrote.

In a letter to Vice President Pence, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union told the administration to “prioritize the safety and protection of all grocery workers and workers in meatpacking and food processing plants.”

The UFCW told the administration to deploy PPE to meat packing plants and mandate social distancing at their workplaces. The union is also asking Pence to deem its workers eligible for prioritized testing.

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“Given the contagious nature of this pandemic, and the significant number of workers in these contained meatpacking plants and processing facilities, the above-mentioned recommendations are among the critical steps that we believe must be adopted as soon as humanly possible,” the letter read. 

According to UFCW, more than 6,500 workers have been diagnosed or exposed. 

The union also requested a halt to line speed waivers, which it says further endangers employees working on slaughter lines. The USDA's Food and Safety Inspection Service approved 11 regulatory waivers in the first two weeks of April for poultry plants to increase their maximum line speed.

The need for increased speed comes as the pandemic threatens to create a food shortage.

“The current emergency is more on the farm than in the grocery store,” Ben Lilliston, interim co-executive director at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, told The Hill.

Lilliston noted that most of the meat on the market right now was produced in March, and most meat producers, including the aforementioned companies that experienced closures, are international. He said if these processing plants are closed for an extended period of time and if other meat processing plants in Mexico, Canada and elsewhere also experience shutdowns, consumers could see changes on supermarket shelves.

“These highly-profitable global meat companies need to take a series of protective measures for their workers – that includes slowing down the lines to allow for more social distancing,” he said. “This will ultimately allow the plants to re-open and keep them open. In the longer-term we need to address the vulnerability of this very concentrated system with huge animal operations feeding into huge meat processing plants.”