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Article: Senators prod White House, USDA, other agencies for action to protect food workers

24 April 2020 Joan Murphy

Read below an article taken from IEG Policy platform dated 21/04/20.

Three dozen senators are asking Vice President Michael Pence, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and other top officials for their plans to protect food workers and federal inspectors amid daily reports of more meat plants being shut down from COVID-19.

JBS USA's Minnesota pork plant is the latest to shut down, stirring more questions about the impact these supply chain breakdowns are having on consumers and food producers.

However, government agencies have shared little information about plans to protect federal food inspectors amid reports meat inspectors at the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) have become ill and are not being provided masks by USDA. Others have raised concerns about whether shuttling inspectors from closed plants to still open plants may cause additional exposure to the virus.

And it is unclear whether the government has a contingency plan in the event more farmworkers and food workers contract the virus, further disrupting an already fragile supply chain.

"During this public health crisis, the White House and your agencies must coordinate with state and local governments and the private sector to take aggressive action to protect essential workers in the food supply chain," wrote Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and 34 other Democrats and Independents in an April 20 letter. "We need bold action and creative solutions, including greatly increased testing and tracing of those exposed to the virus in order to stop the spread."

Senators pointed to reports of essential workers falling ill in meatpacking plants, processing facilities, farms, and grocery stores, while others fear to go to work.

"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," they wrote.

They also cited a lack of access to tests and personal protective equipment (PPE) that is leaving essential food supply workers at even higher risk and makes the virus more likely to spread.

The letter, which was sent to Pence, who heads the White House coronavirus task force, Perdue, FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler, and Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad Wolf, prodded the Trump administration to share their plans for protecting food workers and federal inspectors.

They asked for the government's blueprint in the event essential food supply chain workers, including all farmworkers, contract COVID-19, such as the preparedness and response plans to control the outbreak, ensure treatment of workers and keep the food supply open. And whether they are coordinating with local officials and the food industry to address food worker shortages.

They also asked how USDA is coordinating with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to ensure employers know what is necessary to protect workers.

"A clear safety and health standard applicable to this novel virus would ensure employers understand what is necessary to keep essential food supply chain workers healthy so they can continue to work to keep the food chain strong. Have your agencies asked [Labor] Secretary [Eugene] Scalia to use his existing authorities under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) to ensure employers of essential food supply chain workers institute necessary safety and health accommodations to deal with this virus? If not, why not?"

They asked the role of agencies in creating consistent recommendations on monitoring of symptoms, sanitation practices, social distancing, PPE standards, and communication requirements. And whether the food industry has contacted agencies about the unmet need for PPE for food workers.

Other issues in the letter focus on making COVID-19 testing available to food workers and finding alternative housing options for those infected with the virus.

USDA not supplying masks to federal inspectors amid crisis

Lastly, the 36 senators raised questions about the safety of USDA inspectors during the pandemic, about the number of inspectors who have become infected, and whether the infections have caused any slowing or reduction in inspections or production.

Lawmakers also asked whether USDA has "appropriately notified its personnel of the new COVID paid sick and family leave policies recently enacted by Congress."

In a briefing with congressional staff, USDA 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 said.

"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?"

Senators asked for a response by April 24.

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Posted 24 April 2020 by Joan Murphy, Senior Editor, IHS Markit



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