The Trump Administration's failure to implement a coordinated public-health strategy to combat COVID-19 is putting the health and safety of the nation's 6,500 Meat and Poultry Inspectors at risk while further spreading the virus, according to the union that represents them.
The American Federation of Government Employees has been able to confirm the death of four United States Department of Agriculture Inspectors from the coronavirus, but Paula Schelling, the acting president of the union's National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals, said management has refused to provide information on the status of other members.
'Need to Know Numbers'
"The industry is working with the USDA and headquarters to avoid releasing any of this information so that they can keep people working in these plants no matter what," she said in a phone interview. "For us it is critical to know these numbers: the number of people sidelined, the number of people who were in contact with someone who tested positive, and the number of facility employees who have tested positive."
Ms. Schelling said that producers were reluctant to implement testing for fear it would result in their being shut down. At the same time, she added, the "USDA said they encouraged you to get tested but they would not compel it."
An email request for comment from the USDA got no response.
AFGE's Inspectors are responsible for 10,000 facilities and individual inspectors can cover four or five where conditions can vary widely.
"In Illinois we had one of our Consumer Safety Inspectors who succumbed to COVID and two days later his wife got admitted, and she was on a ventilator and has a long rehabilitation ahead of her," Ms. Schelling said. "With this monster COVID-19, nobody knows what the long-term health impacts are."
160 Industry Deaths
According to the United Food and Commercial Workers, which is the largest union in the industry, 36,000 employees have tested positive for COVID and 160 have died.
Early in the pandemic, meat-processing facilities, where production lines require that employees work elbow to elbow, were flagged as particularly vulnerable to outbreaks of the virus.
In several locations, the outbreaks prompted local officials to press their owners for transparency and employee testing. Producers pushed back by claiming that the nation's meat supply was in jeopardy. In April, that claim prompted President Trump to invoke the Defense Production Act, ordering all meat plants to stay open because they were critical infrastructure.
At the time, the USDA advised that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Labor had issued guidance specific to the "meat and poultry processing industry in order to facilitate ongoing operations and support the food supply, while also mitigating the risk of spreading COVID-19."
The nation's top food regulator "strongly" recommended that the guidance be followed, but only "where practical, recognizing that how they are implemented may differ given the unique circumstances of establishments and processing facilities nationwide."
The industry during the pandemic has actually increased exports to China while raising U.S. consumer meat and poultry prices dramatically, according to a joint investigation conducted by U.S. Sens. Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren.
"New data show that meat-processing companies continue to export record quantities of meat to China despite warning of shortages," according to a press release issued by the Senators from New Jersey and Massachusetts. "Meanwhile, the number of COVID-19 cases in meatpacking plants continues to grow to over 36,000, disproportionately affecting workers of color."
The companies claim that they 'meet or exceed' CDC safety guidelines, despite meatpacking workers continuing to contract and die from COVID-19.
Consumer groups and unions are pressing Congress to pass legislation that establishes mandatory health and safety protections for essential workers in industries like meat-processing that would be enforced by OSHA.
'Exploiting Their Workers'
Tony Corbo, a senior government affairs representative for Food & Water Watch, a consumer and environmental advocacy non-profit, praised Warren and Booker "for turning the spotlight on the big meatpackers to expose how they are exploiting their workers."
"While consumer prices are going up, these companies are still exporting hundreds of millions of pounds of meat and poultry abroad," said Mr. Corbo in an email.
Mr. Corbo said that while he was "not opposed to exports," the claim by the producers that there was a meat shortage was "disingenuous because they are still profiting from their exports as they are putting their workers and USDA inspectors in danger. [They] are being forced to work during the pandemic not only to feed domestic consumers but consumers in China and other Asian countries."
"These companies clearly cannot be trusted to do what is right for their workers, farmers and customers," said Mr. Booker in a statement. "It is time to act urgently and legislate critical health and safety protections that will do what these companies are failing to do, as well as work to overhaul our broken food system by passing the Farm System Reform Act into law."
Senator Warren said in a statement, "If these companies believe they're doing everything required of them to protect workers, yet workers continue getting sick and dying, then it's clear that non-enforceable CDC guidance is not enough.... to keep workers safe."
Ducking and Stonewalling
According to their investigation, there has been no uniform response from the meat companies to the crisis on basics like providing free testing, paid sick leave or contract tracing, while others provided no information.
"This is consistent with the wide variation of practices in the CDC's recent report, which found that only 37 percent of the [meat-processing] facilities reporting cases offered COVID-19 testing to employees, only 22 percent closed their facilities temporarily, and 21 percent reduced the rate of animal processing," according to the report.
The Senators singled out producers Smithfield, Tyson, JBS USA, and Cargill.
In response to the report, Kenneth M. Sullivan, president and chief executive officer for Smithfield, wrote Ms. Warren and Mr. Booker had a "fundamental misunderstanding of our food supply chain, the agricultural sector and the role exports play in a healthy farm economy." He added that the inquiry was "fraught with misinformation about our company and industry.... gleaned from media outlets that have made statements and inferences that grossly mischaracterize us, our values and response to COVID-19."
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