Since early March, 14,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases are tied to 181 meat processing plants across the U.S., and at least 54 plant workers have died. In response, approximately 30 meatpacking plants have shut down for some period of time due to outbreaks, with approximately 45,000 workers impacted. The closures have been responsible for a 40-percent reduction in pork slaughter capacity, as well as a 25-percent reduction in beef slaughter capacity.
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Many believe those latter figures are what drove President Donald Trump to sign an executive order stating that all meatpackers reopen their doors on April 28, even though many of these plants were still dealing with employees sick from the virus, and no new safety precautions were put in place to control the spread of the disease.
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union was quick to chastise the president for this order. The UFCW represents the more than 250,000 meatpacking and food processing workers across the country and view this action as seriously troubling, not just for the safety of employees but, possibly, the food supply as well.
“America’s meatpacking workers are putting their lives on the line every day to make sure our families have the food they need during this pandemic,” says Marc Perrone, UFCW’s international president. “Meatpacking plants did not close because anyone wants them to close; these plants closed because at least 30 workers died and more than 10,000 workers have been infected or exposed to COVID-19.”
The union believes that mandating all plants to stay open without including proper safety improvements endangers the long-term security of the nation’s food supply.
The union is calling for the White House Coronavirus Task Force to prioritize five safety actions targeted toward the meatpacking industry:
- Increased worker testing;
- Priority access to PPE;
- Halting line speed waivers;
- Mandating social distancing; and
- Isolating workers with symptoms or those who test positive for COVID-19.
The CDC released guidance for workers involved in meat and poultry processing, and explained these employees are not exposed to SARS-CoV-2 through the meat products they handle. However, their work environments—processing lines and other areas in busy plants where they have close contact with coworkers and supervisors—may contribute substantially to their potential exposures. They agreed with what the UFCW has advocated so strongly for.
Paula Schelling, acting president of American Federation of Government Employees Council 45, told Food Quality and Safety that, while the president’s order requiring plants to remain open is mandatory, compliance with the government’s safety guidelines is not. “Without protective equipment and testing of all workers, more employees will get sick and the safety of our food supply will be compromised,” she says. “Proper actions are needed today, not months from now. This is a recipe for disaster.”