Will anyone verify meatpackers' COVID-19 mitigation efforts?

Novel coronavirus outbreaks have forced multiple meatpacking plants to shut down and turned Louisa County into Iowa’s hot spot for COVID-19 cases per capita. Governor Kim Reynolds asserted on April 15 that site visits and stepped up testing will keep employees healthy, minimizing disruption to the food supply chain.

But while routine food safety inspections of meatpacking plants continue, the companies’ additional steps to slow the spread of COVID-19 are outside the scope of regulation by the the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS).

Neither the Iowa Department of Public Health nor the governor’s office responded to inquiries about who–if anyone–will be inspecting meatpackers’ coronavirus mitigation measures.

“PROACTIVE” ABOUT WORKER SAFETY?

The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) has charged that meatpacking plants are forcing employees to work in unsafe conditions, sometimes doing “grueling shoulder-to-shoulder work even when sick, for fear of losing their jobs.”

Companies including JBS and Tyson have said they are monitoring workers for fever and other COVID-19 symptoms before shifts, and taking other steps to promote social distancing. Some packing plants have installed plastic sheets between workers in the cutting rooms, which LULAC considers inadequate.

Tyson’s pork processing plant in Columbus Junction suspended operations on April 6. Workers there account for 148 of the 166 confirmed COVID-19 infections in Louisa County, according to local officials. Two employees who had worked there have died, Tyson confirmed on April 15. National Beef’s Iowa Premium processing plant in Tama is also shut down until at least April 20 due to a COVID-19 outbreak.

During her April 14 news conference, Reynolds described Tyson as “proactive” about protecting workers through screening for symptoms before shifts, providing masks or face shields, and “being very upfront: if you are sick, stay home.”

Tyson employees in Black Hawk County have a different perspective, Amie Rivers reported for the Waterloo/Cedar Falls Courier on April 15.

Hundreds of Tyson employees in Waterloo have refused to work in recent days, according to multiple people who have reached out to The Courier. They say the company is not protecting workers from coronavirus spread. […]

A person who teaches English to some Tyson workers said Tuesday [April 14] those workers say employees from closed plants were being moved to Waterloo with no quarantine time in between.

A separate individual Wednesday said at least some positive cases in Black Hawk County were residents of Columbus Junction. Tyson’s Columbus Junction location has been closed for an outbreak since April 6.

The teacher said workers also said they were not being provided with personal protection equipment and alleged hand sanitizer stations were not being filled. The teacher did not want to go on the record for fear of outing students and risking their jobs.

Near the end of the governor’s April 15 news conference, Ryan Foley of the Associated Press asked, “Are state agencies doing any on-site inspections to ensure that the [meatpacking] plants are actually implementing the worker safety protections that they have promised, and beyond Columbus Junction, are there any plans to do mass testing of workers in other plants, including those in Tama?”

Reynolds responded,

Yes, there is. We have eighteen packing and food processing plants throughout the state of Iowa, and as I’ve indicated, we’ve made initial contacts with them. The Department of Ag does site visits and inspections with the USDA to all of these sites.

But we’re going to continue to reach out and provide the testing that they need to make sure that we can protect their employees, first and foremost, but so that we can have healthy employees that can keep the plant up and running and continue to make sure that that food supply is working its way to our grocery stores, and to Americans and people all around the world.

So we are continuing to work on that, will continue to work on that. I have a call with [U.S. Agriculture] Secretary [Sonny] Perdue today. We’ve got a call into CDC [the U.S. Centers for Disease Control] to see if they can provide even some assistance at our packing plants as well. So we’re doing all of the above to make sure that we can continue to protect our employees but make sure that we really protect this critical, essential infrastructure as well.

The Iowa Department of Public Health sent a rapid-testing Abbott machine to Louisa County, along with kits to test hundreds of Tyson workers.

But I was unable to confirm that any government inspectors will verify that Iowa meatpacking plants are following the public health recommendations for dealing with the pandemic.

AG INSPECTORS ARE FOCUSED ON FOOD SAFETY

Keely Coppess, communications director for IDALS, clarified in an email to Bleeding Heartland that Iowa’s agriculture agency “inspects smaller meat processing facilities,” listed here.

The USDA has jurisdiction to inspect larger beef or pork plants, like those operated by JBS, Tyson, and Smithfield. Coppess added (emphasis in original),

The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship’s regulatory authority only applies to the inspection of the food products. Our inspectors look at the animals pre- and post-slaughter to ensure the meat is safe for human consumption. The Iowa Department of Public Health is providing human-health guidance for the meat processing facilities.

The Iowa Department of Agriculture is continuing inspections as required by Iowa statute. The Department has an inspector on-site every day the facility is officially processing meat for retail distribution. Our inspectors are wearing gloves and masks, following social distancing guidelines and limiting interactions with the staff to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Speaking to Bleeding Heartland by phone, Buck McKay of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service confirmed that the agency continues to perform mandatory inspections of food processors, including meatpacking plants. COVID-19 mitigation measures such as taking employees’ temperature before shifts, installing barriers between workers, or creating more space in break rooms would be outside the scope of site visits by USDA inspectors.

McKay followed up with an email that explained,

To prevent the spread of COVID-19, CDC is recommending individuals employ social distancing or maintaining approximately 6 feet from others, when possible. In food production/processing facilities and retail food establishments, an evaluation should be made to identify and implement operational changes that increase employee separation. However, social distancing to the full 6 feet will not be possible in some food facilities.

The risk of an employee transmitting COVID-19 to another is dependent on distance between employees, the duration of the exposure, and the effectiveness of employee hygiene practices and sanitation. When it’s impractical for employees in these settings to maintain social distancing, effective hygiene practices should be maintained to reduce the chance of spreading the virus.

However, maintaining social distancing in the absence of effective hygiene practices may not prevent the spread of this virus. Food facilities should be vigilant in their hygiene practices, including frequent and proper hand-washing and routine cleaning of all surfaces.

I wondered whether the schedule for food safety inspections of meatpacking plants had changed in anyway due to the pandemic. According to McKay, “FSIS is operationally nimble and is using all administrative means and flexibilities available to protect the health and safety of employees based on local public health recommendations. Planning for absenteeism is a part of normal FSIS operations. FSIS has a plan and authority to address staffing considerations and acting to do so accordingly.”

Bleeding Heartland reached out to communications staff for the governor’s office and Iowa Department of Public Health, seeking clarity on whether anyone from the health agency is going on site to confirm that meatpacking plants are consistently screening workers for fever, providing personal protective equipment, and allowing for more social distancing. At this writing, they have not replied. I will update this post as needed.

UPDATE: Clark Kauffman of Iowa Capital Dispatch tried to drill down on this at the governor’s April 16 news conference. Reynolds is still asserting that agricultural inspectors are handling this matter. I don’t think so. My transcript:

Kauffman: Can you tell me who in state government is investigating complaints from Iowa workers who say they’re being forced to work while sick, and separately, are you saying that the USDA and Iowa Department of Agriculture are actually inspecting food plants for adherence to these proactive, self-imposed mitigation efforts?

Reynolds: They do that all the time. The USDA inspects the food processing plants across the state. And when I–yesterday, or whenever, I think I referenced the [Iowa] secretary of ag–they do the smaller facilities, and not the larger ones that export products outside of Iowa and outside of the country. So USDA is the one that does the inspections for those. And that is done all the time and regularly. Oftentimes they have a USDA official that’s on site at the facility.

I have found no evidence USDA inspectors are checking on steps to slow the spread of COVID-19 at meatpacking plants.

LATER UPDATE: When the topic came up at her April 17 news conference, Reynolds said worker safety matters would be a concern for the Occupational Health and Safety Administration. She said workers can file an OSHA complaint, adding that she had talked with Iowa Labor Commissioner Rod Roberts. He told the governor his agency has been “proactive” in informing businesses and processing plants about the Iowa Department of Public Health and CDC guidelines. All OSHA complaints are being investigated, Reynolds said.

Roberts also told Reynolds’ staff that his team “are expecting COVID-19-specific guidance from federal OSHA this week,” that “can enhance what they’re already doing.”

Kathie Obradovich of Iowa Capital Dispatch asked Reynolds whether she had talked with any groups representing workers of meatpacking plants. The governor replied that she has focused on speaking with HR or plant managers “so that we can understand what the needs are” and keep the workers safe. She went on to talk about all the things managers are doing to keep the plants running. A few minutes later, Iowa Department of Public Health Deputy Director Sarah Reisetter mentioned that the owners of meatpacking plants “want to do everything they can to keep their workforce healthy” and have “been great partners so far” and “are doing the right things.”

One might think that a person concerned about worker safety would speak to groups representing workers, but apparently Reynolds doesn’t find that relevant.

Top image: Governor Kim Reynolds speaking at a news conference on April 15. Photo by Brian Powers/Des Moines Register (pool).

  • If you are sick…

    If you are sick, stay home… and we will pay you!

  • OSHA, not USDA/IDALS

    That the Governor is talking to the USDA instead of OSHA tells you all you need to know about where this Administration’s priorities lie when it comes to packing plants. (It’s like “The Jungle;” Upton Sinclair thought he was writing about workers’ rights and the public seized on the rat droppings on the floor and in the ground meat part.)

  • Thank you for this post

    I’ve seen recent Big Ag messaging aimed at assuring consumers that meat, during the covid pandemic, is perfectly safe to eat. I’ve seen almost nothing in that messaging about the safety of the workers who process that meat. Is Big Ag hoping that we don’t care?

  • Fresh idea---

    I know how to solve this problem: Repeal Iowa’s union-busting (“right to work”) law. The workers could take care of themselves if we would let them do so. Once upon a time their were labor unions in those plants. Does anyone remember that? Gov Reynolds, are you there?

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