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News is beginning to trickle out of how the novel coronavirus is impacting our nation’s meatpackers and inspection services. And it ain’t good.

Here’s a sample.

Dozens of workers walked off the job at Purdue Farm’s Kathleen, Georgia facility over concerns that they might have been exposed to COVID-19.  Perdue says it’s sanitizing all its plant’s every 24 hours and encouraging workers to stay home if they are sick or think they might have been exposed to the virus…..but not if they are fearful (more on that in a moment).

Positive COVID-19 cases have been identified at facilities owned by Sanderson Farms, Smithfield Foods, Purdue Farms even Tyson, who has had a "limited number of team members test positive." 

The Food and Drug Administration on March 18 halted all routine food inspections at facilities that manufacture food in the hopes of flattening the curve of COVID-19 cases.

Taken together these facts suggest a food system under duress.  Social distancing measures are likely resulting in fewer workers at meat processing plants.  Those pushing on may be more tired and stressed then usual which may lead to food processing mistakes.  And with the suspension of routine food safety inspections there is a greater chance that something falls through the cracks...such as a foodborne illness outbreak.

Yeah it’s a mess.

Some companies have already read the tea leaves.  For example, recently Sanderson Farms ordered more than 400 slaughterhouse workers in Georgia to stay home, even if they feel healthy.  

Tyson Foods. Perdue, and Cargill say they’ve begun company wide temperature checks in the hopes of keeping sick people from infecting the rest of the workforce.  But as of this writing such temperature checks are not industry wide and there are over 800 federally inspected livestock slaughter plants in the U.S.  There’s also close to 4,000 plants that process red meat and almost 3,000 federally inspected poultry slaughter plants.

And Pro Publica is reporting many meat packers are ignoring social distancing practices.

Meanwhile, over at the FDA, they’re downplaying suspension of routine food testing.  FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn says “Another critical factor in taking this action is the confidence we have in our ability to maintain oversight over international manufacturers and imported products using alternative tools and methods. This can include, among other things, evaluating records in lieu of conducting an onsite inspection on an interim basis when travel is not permissible, when appropriate.” 

And it all that isn’t enough consumer demand for food has gone straight through the roof.  The National Chicken Council reports meat sales spiked by 77% the week of March 15 as buyers sought to stockpile their freezers presumably to cut down on trips to public places where exposure to COVID-19 is greatest.

The longer the COVID-19 pandemic drags out, the less sure I become about FDA and for that matter USDA staying on top of and ahead of the curve on potential food contamination and food-borne illness.   

Is it not possible all those eagle eyed workers, auditors, and federal inspections to miss something significant because the workforce is laser focused on COVID-19?

About Dave Dickey

Dave Dikcey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for the Midwest Center covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. His opinions are his own and do not reflect the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.