But, the effects are much broader and deeper. More than a dozen meatpacking plant closures over the last few months have led to a 25% reduction in pork and 10% reduction in beef slaughter capacity that in turn has affected 45,000 workers. Another growing problem is absenteeism as workers simply stop showing up for work out of concerns of getting the virus under plant conditions they deem unsafe.
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Explore This IssueJune/July 2020
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Ensuring the safety of workers is a main talking point heard from industry and government leaders. Chris Young, executive director of American Association of Meat Processors, says that the industry is working diligently to mitigate risks to employees, with many plants implementing preventive practices beyond the usual safety measures of complete daily sanitation of plants and use of virus-killing soaps and detergents. Extra measures include screening everyone who enters the plant and requiring masks. Some plants have implemented policies on social distancing on the slaughter floor or on production lines, but these remain challenging, he adds. These are some of the measures recently recommended by CDC and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in their published interim guidance for meat and poultry processing workers and employers. The guidance emphasizes the need to identify a qualified workplace coordinator responsible for COVID-19 assessment and control planning whom workers can contact with concerns.
Still, more safety is needed. Social distancing is nearly impossible to implement in meat packing plants, given the close quarters in which workers labor. Common sense prevention measures such as mandating workers to stay home if they feel sick may be difficult given the multiple challenges of workers who often can’t afford to lose wages and don’t have health insurance or any type of safety net.
UFCW wants virus testing prioritized for food industry employees. The union is also requesting that meat packing companies provide full sick leave for any worker infected with COVID-19, as well as adequate protective gear. It also wants companies to enforce social distancing among employees.
On April 28, 2020, President Donald Trump signed an executive order stating that all meat processing plants were to reopen and stay open, designating them as critical infrastructure under the Defense Production Act. Under the order, plants will work with USDA to ensure compliance with the recent CDC/OSHA guidelines. Whether or not this will prioritize more testing and protective gear for workers is yet to be seen.
Impact on Produce Farms and Smaller Processing Plants
Amid the headline news of how COVID-19 is affecting the meat industry are the ongoing acounts of what is occuring among produce farmers and small food processing plants that need to adapt as well due to shifting consumer demands, labor shortages, and changing markets.
Rong Li underscores that consumer shopping behaviors are changing, with more people consuming products deemed healthy, such as fresh foods, and most preferring local brands over international ones. Additionally, more people now prefer to shop online for groceries. “This means that the food supply chains should adjust rapidly, on product line and quantity, to meet the new customer behavior,” she adds.
Farmers and processors are adapting. Tom Atherstone, founder and owner of Glass Onion Catering and Gourmet Foods in Richmond, Calif., says that his mid-sized food processing plant, which produces fresh, short-shelf life, premade products such as salads, wraps, and parfaits for major retail grocers, has seen a substantial 65% drop in business as their “grab and go” products are less in demand. “People are not on the go now; they are at home, so most aren’t buying premade salads or wraps,” he adds. To adapt to the loss, six administrative staff have been furloughed, as well as approximately 15 of 139 plant workers. The remaining 124 workers are working fewer hours. Luckily, he says, no employee has contracted the virus, but the concern weighs heavy on everyone. The usual preventive measures—including using gloves, washing hands often, donning clean smocks, and using door sanitizer—are in place, but he acknowledged that “stepping it up a notch or two has been a little challenging.” The company does constant intense cleanup and sanitization, including a full plant sanitation after production hours that prioritizes traffic areas such as the lunch room and restrooms. He is also trying to obtain temperature gauges and masks but is having difficulty given the high demand and low supply.