(CBS News)-Hundreds of federal meat inspectors have been exposed to COVID-19, as coronavirus outbreaks spread to thousands of workers at processing plants across the country.
About 145 field employees were absent from work as of April 28 due to COVID-19 diagnoses, and another 130 were under self-quarantine due to exposure to the virus, a spokesperson for the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the federal agency that inspects the U.S. food supply, told CBS News on Monday.
One FSIS inspector based out of the New York City area, one from the Chicago area and another from Mississippi have died due to the virus, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), a union representing food inspectors, said Tuesday.
Paula Schelling, acting president of AFGE Council 45, which represents 6,500 federal food inspectors nationwide, said she gives the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service “an ‘F’ for protecting their own employees.”
“Every day there are inspectors going into facilities where there are known positive COVID-19 cases,” she said. “People are still going in there and doing inspection.”
The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union said in a statement last week that at least 20 meatpacking and food processing workers have been killed by COVID-19, and 22 meatpacking plants in the United States have closed at some point in the last two months due to coronavirus outbreaks. At least 5,000 meatpacking workers, as well as 1,500 food processing workers, have tested positive for COVID-19, or are awaiting test results or are in quarantine, according to UFCW.
Among the concerns for inspectors is that plants do not have to notify them if someone in a plant tests positive for COVID-19, according to Schelling.
“Inspectors can hear it second-hand at best when they’re not notified,” Schelling said.
FSIS inspectors often work shoulder-to-shoulder with plant employees while monitoring production lines, in environments not conducive to social distancing.
It is “virtually impossible in these meatpacking plants to practice social distancing,” said Tom Corbo, a senior government affairs representative from the nonprofit Food & Water Watch.
Despite the close contact with other workers, the USDA has not provided personal protective equipment (PPE) to inspectors. The department is still working to “identify PPE needs in the food supply chain,” the USDA spokesperson said Monday.
Instead, the USDA has offered a $50 stipend for inspectors to buy face coverings or the materials to make them, according to an FSIS notice issued in early April. It cited increased demand and limited supplies of commercial face coverings as the reason for the one-time reimbursement.
Despite the inherent risks to personal safety, many of the roughly 6,500 FSIS field inspectors – represented by AFGE – remain on the job.
Some are concerned the coronavirus impact on inspectors could jeopardize the safety of consumers. Restricted staffing could mean compromised carcasses of meat, pork and poultry could skirt proper inspection.
“I don’t think the USDA is providing adequate staffing to protect the food supply,” Corbo said of the impact COVID-19 exposure is having on the FSIS workforce.