The roll-out of the first COVID-19 vaccine has started, with healthcare workers, first responders and seniors among those included in the first wave of distributions. On December 20, a CDC advisory panel recommended that frontline essential workers—including those in food production and manufacturing—be part of the next phase of distribution.
Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, was pleased with the decision. “As the largest union for America’s essential workers in grocery, meatpacking, and food processing, UFCW applauds the CDC’s advisory committee for prioritizing these brave men and women for access to the COVID-19 vaccine,” he said. “Protecting our country’s food workers is essential to keeping our communities safe and stopping future outbreaks in these high-exposure workplaces. CDC Director Redfield must recognize the vital role these essential workers serve by ensuring that they are among the first to receive access to the COVID-19 vaccine.”
Still, it’s not CDC’s call. Each state is charged with making the decision on where the vaccines will wind up, which is why efforts are being made by many companies to have their voices heard in this all-important decision.
Food Companies Lobby CDC, States for Priority Access to COVID-19 Vaccine
Last week, Perdue Farms sent a letter to the CDC and governors in 15 states where the company has operations, asking them to prioritize essential meat and poultry industry workers, their families and co-habitants, as part of Phase 1b of vaccine distribution.
“Our people remain Perdue Farms’ first priority throughout the COVID-19 pandemic,” Diana Souder, director of corporate communications for Perdue Farms, tells Food Quality & Safety. “We also offered resources and outreach support to assist the CDC and states in this effort, recognizing that a successful vaccine program will require partnership between government and private industry.”
The North American Meat Institute (NAMI), the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and National Pork Producers Council have joined forces to urge all 50 governors to include workers in the meat and poultry industry—including USDA meat and poultry inspectors and livestock producers—to be granted high-priority.
“Those people have been on the front lines ensuring Americans have access to safe, nutritious, and affordable food,” the groups wrote in a letter. “The challenges packing plants and their producer suppliers in particular faced in the early stages of the pandemic were unprecedented and yet were endured. The meat industry is resilient and the supply chain remains intact.”
The meat processing industry has been hit hard by COVID, with more than 125 deaths and nearly 20,000 workers who have been exposed to the virus.
“We welcome growing support for building on effective COVID-19 prevention measures by ensuring priority access to vaccines for frontline meat and poultry workers,” Julie Anna Potts, NAMI’s president and CEO, says. “Vaccination is the next critical step that will protect this diverse workforce and facilitate vaccine distribution in rural areas with limited health services.”
Governor Laura Kelly of Kansas has already confirmed that meat plant workers will be at the top of the list in the next round of vaccinations. The same holds true in South Carolina, where Governor Henry McMaster noted processing plant and other food production workers would be part of the second phase of vaccines.
In California, no decision has been made, but Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia is fighting for these workers, introducing a bill that would prioritize workers in all parts of the food chain. “To keep our grocery stores stocked and families fed throughout this pandemic, California’s farmworkers, grocery store, and other critical food sector workers face a heightened risk of exposure,” Garcia says. “Without question, these essential workers should be prioritized in receiving vaccinations. The stability of our food supply system relies on our ability to provide testing and vaccinations for these essential workers.”
Many other states aren’t committing to a plan, but it’s believed that many—especially those that have large food processing plant operations—will include these workers early on in distribution efforts.