Three dozen Senate Democrats are pushing leaders of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and several other agencies to explain how each plans to protect both the U.S. food supply and essential workers during the Covid-19 outbreak. 

In a letter Monday, the group — including Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), ranking member of the U.S. Senate’s agriculture committee — asked each agency to answer seven questions by Friday. They include the agencies’ plans on responding to a Covid-19 outbreak among essential food supply chain workers and farmworkers, filling shortages in the workforce, solving shortages in personal protective equipment in the private food sector, testing of workers and protecting USDA inspectors. 

The letter was also addressed to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Homeland Security and Vice President Mike Pence. 

“There have been numerous reports of essential workers in meatpacking plants, processing facilities, farms, grocery stores, and markets falling ill from COVID-19. Other sources have reported that employee absences are high as people fear going into work due to the threat of infection. Some workers have reportedly felt pressured to work even when feeling sick. There are also serious concerns about the health of farmworkers who plant and harvest our crops and often work, live, and travel in close proximity, making social distancing very difficult,” the group wrote. 

They also questioned the USDA’s protection of its own inspection staff. 

“USDA briefed congressional staff and said it has been unable to supply masks for all of its food inspectors and has instead offered to reimburse its employees for making or purchasing their own masks,” the letter stated.

“What is USDA doing to supply all FSIS inspectors, APHIS inspectors, and AMS essential personnel with appropriate personal protective equipment and what is the timeframe when USDA will be able to provide this equipment?” they asked. 

Earlier this month, USDA meat inspectors were told to make or find  their own masks. 

As Agri-Pulse reported on April 10

USDA, despite calls from meat inspectors at slaughtering and processing plants across the country, is still not distributing face masks or other protective gear, a government source told Agri-Pulse Friday.

The government just doesn’t have enough supplies, USDA told its employees, including the roughly 6,500 meat inspectors at slaughtering and processing plants across the country, in an internal memo dated Apr. 4 and viewed by Agri-Pulse.

“While the department is unable to provide masks to all mission essential employees at this time, we will notify our workforce as soon as possible as additional … supplies become available,” states the memo distributed by USDA’s Office of the Deputy Secretary. 

And, federal employees were prohibited from wearing masks due to “bad optics,” said the District 2 Chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees in a statement

As Government Executive reported on April 8

At the outset of the pandemic, FSIS told employees they were not permitted to wear masks because of the fears it could create in the workplace, according to multiple inspectors. That policy appeared to override existing FSIS guidance that employees could wear N95 masks if they felt comfortable and received permission to do so. The agency reversed course on Monday, now allowing inspectors to wear their own masks at food processing plants. It added, however, the workers must ask the company operating the plant for permission to wear the masks and remove them if the plant makes such a request. 

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