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COVID-19 Spreading to Food Processing Facilities Across the U.S.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Although not yet as pervasive as outbreaks at meatpacking facilities, COVID-19 is on the rise at America’s food processing facilities. EWG’s search of news stories published from March 14 to June 8 found that almost 1,200 food processing workers at 60 plants have been infected by the coronavirus.

The infected workers were employed at the plants of industry giants like Kraft Heinz, Birds Eye, Conagra and the Campbell Soup Company’s Pepperidge Farm, as well as those of smaller brands, like Fairmont Foods and Ruiz Foods.

The table below lists the plants with the most cases. Click on the plant name for a news article or other source of information. For the full list, click here.

Food Processing Plants With the Most Reported COVID-19 Cases

Company

Location

Number of Cases

Steven Roberts Orignial Desserts

Aurora, Colo.

115

Ruiz Foods

Dinuba, Calif.

107

(at two plants)

Ruiz Foods

Tulare, Calif.

Birds Eye

Darien, Wis.

104

Taylor Farms

North Kingstown, R.I.

100

Leprino Foods

Fort Morgan, Colo.

87

Firestone Fruit

Vancouver, Wash.

69

Rite Stuff Foods

Jerome, Idaho

50

Abimar Foods

Abilene, Texas

48

Lusamerica Fish

Morgan Hill, Calif.

38

Calavo Growers

Santa Paula, Calif.

35

Good Foods Group

Pleasant Prairie, Wis.

34

Twin City Foods

Ellensburg, Colo.

34

King Soopers Bakery

Denver, Colo.

32

Columbia Reach

Yakima, Wash.

31

Source: EWG, from news stories published between March 14 and June 8.

In a report today on EWG’s findings, Bloomberg said: “These are the first national numbers of their kind. The advocacy group compiled its figures using local media reports because there are no federal agencies reporting the data. The true total is almost certainly higher.”

At least 1.8 million Americans work in food processing plants – disproportionately people of color earning less than $40,000 a yearWorking conditions make many of these employees more susceptible to the coronavirus pandemic. 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.

Despite the critical role food workers play in our economy, many do not receive protections from the virus. Some food and farm companies have provided personal protective equipment, but the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, and the Department of Agriculture have yet to issue emergency standards requiring food companies to meet safety guidelines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

If they do become sick, some food processing workers are ineligible for paid sick leave, increasing the likelihood that they will infect their co-workers. The Families First Act, passed by Congress in March, requires some food industry employers to provide two weeks of paid sick leave, but many are exempt from the requirement. Although they have been deemed essential workers, food workers do not automatically receive hazard pay to reflect the risks they face.

What would happen if thousands of these workers got sick at the same time?

Food prices are mostly driven by the cost of labor, transportation and marketing, not by the wholesale price of ingredients. Even though the salaries earned by food processing workers can be near or below the poverty line, the cost of labor is often a major factor in the price of food.

The effect of these factors on prices varies greatly among food categories and regions. Unlike the costs of meat and dairy, the price of crops typically has little impact on the price of food sold in grocery stores and restaurants. So as more food and farm workers become sick and food and farm labor costs increase, the retail price of food will likely increase as well. According to the USDA, food already accounts for 12 percent of household spending, but the poorest Americans spend about one-third of their income on food.

What should policymakers do to protect our food supply chains from COVID-19?

OSHA must be directed to issue emergency standards that require employers to provide personal protective equipment, enough space to work without spreading the virus, and housing and transportation options that will reduce the spread of the virus. USDA programs that are typically used to provide subsidies to farmers or purchase surplus commodities should be redirected to provide protective equipment to small food processors and farm workers. Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, proposed this shift in her recently introduced Food Supply Protection Act.

To reduce transmission of the virus among workers, all food workers should receive two weeks of paid sick leave, regardless of the size of their employer, and access to health care. Policymakers should ensure that federal agencies enforce laws that keep our food supply safe. Critical safety rules have already been rolled back during the COVID-19 crisis, including food inspections. 

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 protections. 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 that they receive hazard pay for the risks they face.

Farm and food workers are working long hours, at enormous personal risk, to feed us. Congress, the USDA and OSHA must make every effort to protect these essential workers and recognize the critical contribution they make to our nation. 

 

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