A lot of attention has been given to meatpacking plants during the novel coronavirus pandemic as protein facilities close due to widespread infections and those in operation balance meeting demand with keeping staff safe. Food processing plants have been somewhat overlooked in the media over the course of the crisis, but recent research suggests that this segment of the food industry is facing similar challenges as protein-focused operations.
A new report released this week by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) states that some 1,200 food processing workers in the United States have contracted the virus at 60 plants. The researchers found that COVID-19 cases have emerged at facilities operated by some of the world’s biggest food companies, including Conagra, Kraft Heinz, and Frito-Lay.
“At least 1.8 million Americans work in food processing plants – disproportionally people of color earning less than $40,000 a year. Working conditions make many of these employees more susceptible to the coronavirus pandemic,” EWG Policy Analyst Jared Hayes wrote in an article announcing the results of the organization’s analysis. “As more and more workers become sick, our food supply chains could quickly unravel, causing food prices to spike and increasing the number of Americans who struggle with hunger.”
EWG urged policymakers to direct OSHA to create emergency standards that require employers to give their workers personal protective equipment (PPE), put social distancing policies in place, provide workers with alternative housing and transportation options to stem the spread of COVID-19. The organization also suggested that USDA funds given to farmers or used to buy surplus commodities could be diverted for PPE for small food processors and farm workers.
“Hundreds of food processing workers are getting sick from COVID-19. But policymakers have so far done nothing to ensure that these essential workers have adequate safety protection,” Hayes said. “Actions taken so far to provide access to COVID-19 testing and paid sick leave exclude many of these essential workers. Nor have policymakers undertaken the steps needed to ensure they receive hazard pay for the risks they face.”
A similar data collection effort launched by the Food & Environment Reporting Network (FERN) found that 1,770 food processing workers in the US have contracted the novel coronavirus as of June 9. Among that group, seven have died. The nonprofit news organization documented COVID-19 cases at 66 food processing facilities across the country during that period.
The western US, where the first COVID-19 cases emerged in the country, have some of the hardest-hit states, according to FERN’s data. Coronavirus cases have been reported at five food processing plants in California, seven in Washington, and seven in Oregon.
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