The USDA's Response to COVID-19 Outbreaks in the Meatpacking Industry Is Under Investigation

Colorado Senator Michael Bennet has requested a probe into safety practices back in August.

As the COVID-19 pandemic worsened across America, reports continued to flood in that the meatpacking industry was being disproportionately affected. By as early as April, multiple processing plants had to be temporarily shut down due to outbreaks. And by May, multiple grocers were limiting how many meat products customers could buy—despite President Trump issuing an executive order intended to keep plants open. So, unsurprisingly, a study at the time found that counties with meat processing facilities had, on average, double the rate of coronavirus cases. Even last week, a report found that the highest increase in grocery prices in a decade was largely driven by a massive surge in meat prices.

Of course, you can't blame the meat industry for COVID-19, but did things really have to get this bad? Phyllis Fong, the Inspector General for the USDA, says her office is going to try to find out.

Some Experts Say US Could Face Meat Shortages Within Weeks
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Last week, Fong formally responded to an August request by Colorado Senator Michael Bennet for an investigation into how federal actions may have contributed to the spread of COVID-19 in meatpacking plants and other agricultural processing facilities. Fong said her office had "initiated an inspection" to investigate a number of matters including not only how the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has looked after the health and safety of meatpacking workers, but also of its own inspectors, as well. And specifically, her letter states that they will look at "what actions FSIS took following the Executive Order issued on April 28, 2020."

"Early in the pandemic, meat processing plants saw some of the highest rates of COVID-19 infections, harming a workforce predominantly comprised of immigrants, refugees, and people of color, and raising serious questions about any federal actions that may have contributed to the spread of the virus in these facilities," Bennet said on Friday, announcing the probe. "Hardworking Americans who are serving on the front lines during this crisis deserve answers. I'm glad the USDA Inspector General is making it a priority to get to the bottom of this."

According to the most recent data available from the Food and Environment Reporting Network, 57,679 workers at meatpacking plants have tested positive for COVID-19 and 284 of those workers have died. When expanded to include farms and other food processing facilities, the number of cases jumps to over 88,000. Additionally, The Washington Post reports that, as of last May, three federal food inspectors had died of the coronavirus, according to the union that represents them—though the paper received a statement from FSIS saying that their "top priority has been to protect the health and safety of our employees."

The Biden administration has signaled support for strengthening COVID-19 rules at meat processing facilities from the time he took office. One of his earliest executive orders sought "to focus OSHA enforcement efforts related to COVID-19 on violations that put the largest number of workers at serious risk"—which, though not specifically mentioned, seemed to point its finger at the meat industry.

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