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Sky Chadde is the Gannet Agriculture Data Fellow at the Midwest Center for Investigaitve Reporting. Reach him at sky.chadde@investigatemidwest.org This story is embargoed for republication until May 15.

A U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector tasked with ensuring safe food quality at meat processing plants died Thursday after testing positive for COVID-19, a source who was on a call in which the federal agency confirmed the death told USA TODAY.

It is the latest in a growing wave of coronavirus cases and deaths stemming from the meatpacking industry. 

The identity of the employee has not been publicly released. However, Tony Corbo, senior government affairs representative from the nonprofit Food & Water Watch, said the inspector worked in the Chicago district office of the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), a program of the USDA.

The employee had a “patrol assignment,” visiting several meat processing facilities daily to inspect them, another area FSIS employee told USA TODAY.

A USDA spokesperson did not immediately respond to inquiries.

As of Thursday, there were more than 3,400 reported positive cases tied to meatpacking facilities across 62 plants in 23 states, and at least 17 reported worker deaths at eight plants in eight states, according to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, which is partnering with USA TODAY to cover agribusiness.

American Federation of Government Employees spokesperson Tim Kauffman confirmed to USA TODAY that the employee worked in Chicago and that his wife had also contracted the virus and was in the hospital.

It is the second FSIS inspector to die from the novel coronavirus, Corbo said. Another in the New York City area had succumbed to the illness in March, he said. ProPublica was the first to report that death.

An FSIS inspector familiar with the employee who died this week said employees still felt unsupported and some are without masks. USA TODAY is not naming the inspector, who was not authorized to speak publicly and fears losing employment if named.

"We're at the point where we have to make our own masks, find our own masks,” the inspector said, adding the USDA had agreed to provide a $50 reimbursement.

The safety of inspectors, and the USDA’s efforts to protect them, has recently come into question. Concerns have particularly been raised about those embedded in meatpacking facilities, where they stand in close proximity with plant workers as they examine carcasses and products to ensure food safety.

Corbo said the agency was slow to allow inspectors to wear masks inside meatpacking facilities. He provided a copy of an undated FSIS memo that said it would permit inspectors to wear face masks only if the factory granted permission.

On April 4, a second USDA memo said staff “may consider wearing a cloth face covering” consistent with new recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, the agency admitted it lacked supplies for all employees.

“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 information, guidance, or supplies become available,” the memo stated.

Corbo said the lack of protective equipment for FSIS workers predates COVID-19.

“The inspectors have been complaining about this. There’s always been an issue,” Corbo said. “But in this case, it’s been exacerbated.”

Corbo said on Thursday’s call, FSIS administrator Paul Kiecker choked up when he was asked about the death of the inspector.

“He broke trying to respond to my question,” Corbo said. 

Overworked inspectors

The FSIS employs about 8,000 inspectors who oversee all domestic processing and slaughtering operations across more than 6,400 plants nationwide, according to the agency’s latest budget request. These federal workers inspect each livestock and poultry carcass and verify operations at each processing establishment at least once per shift. 

But the agency is chronically understaffed. In some districts, up to one in every seven federally funded meat and poultry inspection positions were sitting vacant — a total of nearly 700 nationwide, according to a 2019 Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting investigation.

This is despite the fact that their workload continues to increase. In fiscal year 2015, they inspected a total of 145.2 million head of livestock and 9.17 billion poultry carcasses. By fiscal year 2019, those numbers jumped to 164 million head of livestock and 9.83 billion poultry carcasses, the agency’s budget reports show.

Because of low staffing levels, federal food inspectors often face burnout and heavy workloads. One worker, who was eight months pregnant, had to spend three weeks working double-shifts. When she eventually called in sick, there was no one to take her place, the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting found.

Sometimes, consumer safety inspectors were forced to abandon their job duties and fill in as slaughter line inspectors to ensure the federally mandated inspections happened.

Tony Adams, a member of the UFCW union at a Pilgrim's Pride plant in Georgia, told reporters on Thursday that the USDA inspectors at his plant now all had masks and some had shields.

This story is a collaboration between USA TODAY and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. The Center is an independent, nonprofit newsroom covering agribusiness, Big Ag and related issues. USA TODAY is funding a fellowship at the Center for expanded coverage of agribusiness and its impact on communities.