Could the food system face a new Covid-19 wave?

Public health experts are concerned about a possible resurgence of Covid-19 in food production plants this fall and say more comprehensive testing, physical distancing, and better data reporting are essential to keeping the virus in check, even as meatpackers insist that the worst of the pandemic has passed. 

The outbreaks in the spring at meatpacking and food processing plants infected tens of thousands of workers and killed hundreds, causing many plant shutdowns. While the disease has not recurred at those levels, experts say there is still a risk of a resurgence despite the efforts taken by meatpackers to slow the spread of the virus.

Moreover, health experts say the sporadic illness data released by public health departments and food companies makes it difficult to assess how well precautionary workplace measures, like barriers between workers or periodic testing, have worked.

Meatpackers have assured the public in recent weeks that the worst of the virus’s effect on the food system has passed. The chief executive of JBS USA recently told the Wall Street Journal that he is “pretty confident” that plant closures due to Covid-19 outbreaks won’t happen again. The chairman of Perdue Farms said in an interview with Fox News that the company’s testing program is “having a positive effect on reducing the infection rate.”

Yet worker advocates say a recent drop in infections from the spring peak doesn’t necessarily project the virus’s future course.

“Our case counts are down, [but] I really don’t expect them to stay down,” says Mark Lauritsen, director of the food processing and meatpacking division of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents more than 250,000 workers. “I expect the fall and winter we’ll see an uptick.”

FERN has been counting Covid-19 outbreaks, cases, and deaths in the food system for nearly six months. That data is drawn from news reports, public records requests, public health departments, and, occasionally, food companies. FERN has counted more than 71,000 worker cases and 321 deaths linked to nearly 1,400 Covid-19 outbreaks at meat and food plants and on farms.

The spring months saw the highest numbers of new worker cases reported, peaking in May with around 17,500 new infections. There was then a steady decline in new cases over the summer, with just over 15,000 added in July and around 5,000 added in August.

Yet after that summer dip, there are signs that new infections may rise again. More than 6,000 cases were added to FERN’s database in September, and nearly half came in the final week of the month. However, a high percentage of the new cases reported in October were drawn from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report which contained data on infections from the spring months. 

This trend line isn’t surprising, says Dr. Christine Petersen, director of the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the University of Iowa, given that the number of new Covid-19 cases nationwide has followed a similar trajectory. She warns that cooler weather and the coming cold and flu season could make it more difficult for food facilities to control the virus. 

Distinguishing between the symptoms of cold, flu, and Covid-19 — and determining which workers should be tested for the novel coronavirus — could be challenging and make it more difficult to track new outbreaks, she says. And workers who are concerned about the stigma of contracting Covid-19, or about missing work to quarantine, may be less likely to get tested if their symptoms are similar to other circulating illnesses.

“If testing isn’t readily available and encouraged, it’s probably not going to happen,” she says. “Something that was already complicated is about to become more complicated.”

In the early months of the pandemic, workers at meat and food facilities reported poor conditions, including a lack of adequate personal protective equipment, little access to testing, and difficulty receiving paid time off.

Their employers have since implemented a variety of safety measures that, experts say, are at least partially responsible for the steady decline in new cases over the summer. In some facilities, workers’ temperatures are taken upon arrival. Some meatpackers are testing a small number of workers each week in an attempt to detect outbreaks. The UFCW and other labor advocacy groups have worked to educate as many workers as possible about Covid-19 by disseminating information in a variety of languages for a workforce with a high proportion of immigrants.

Yet not all of the current precautions have been fully vetted, says Dr. Athena Ramos, assistant professor at the College of Public Health at University of Nebraska Medical Center. Take the partial plexiglass barriers between processing line workers that the National Chicken Council has advertised as one of the industry’s “enhanced safety measures” during the pandemic.

“Does that really stop the transmission? Maybe if you have appropriate ventilation, but do you have appropriate ventilation? Those are questions still left to be answered,” Ramos says. “Many plants have put in these plastic shields between workers, but they continue to be shoulder to shoulder.”

The meat industry has said that its safety practices are sufficient to stop the virus from spreading. Sarah Little, vice president of communications at the North American Meat Institute, an industry lobby group, said in a statement that meat companies have spent “more than a billion dollars” on protecting workers from Covid-19.

“Having significantly reduced positive cases associated with meat and poultry production, the industry will remain vigilant to ensure the health and safety of employees,” she said.

Yet some experts are concerned that what they see as the most effective prevention measure — slowing down processing lines to allow workers to physically distance from one another — has not yet been embraced by the industry. After a significant drop in the spring forced by Covid-19-related shutdowns, meat plants are now processing animals at a rate that matches or even exceeds last year’s production.

Some plants have even received waivers during the pandemic from the Department of Agriculture to run their lines even faster than the industry standard. A FERN investigation found that 40 percent of facilities that received line speed waivers have had Covid-19 outbreaks, compared to 14 percent of all meatpacking plants.

“My concern is that we continue to see reported cases throughout the country,” says Dr. Melissa Perry, a professor and chair of the environmental and occupational health department at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health. “Until physical distancing is implemented as a standard, then infections will continue.”

Ramos, who has surveyed the workplace concerns of meatpacking workers during the pandemic, says it’s unlikely that meat plants will reduce processing line speeds as a way to mitigate the spread of the virus. But she says there are other ways to physically distance workers that should be more rigorously implemented.

“You’ve got to think about the entryway, the exit way, the break room, the restrooms,” she says. “All the places where people have a tendency to congregate.”

Lauritsen says that a lot has changed for the better inside some meat plants since the pandemic began. But precautions are still not where they need to be to prevent a resurgence of the virus. For example, Tyson Foods and JBS have committed to regularly testing small numbers of their processing plant workers to monitor for potential outbreaks. Lauritsen calls this a “good step,” but one that leaves room for improvement.

“It’s something that the entire industry should do,” he says of the partial testing plan, though he believes daily testing would be even better.

Testing of meatpacking workers has been sporadic throughout the pandemic. In the spring, Tyson announced an “extensive program of prevention and testing” at many of its plants. But the effort lasted only two months and reached just 18 of the company’s 140 facilities before it was abandoned. JBS and Smithfield Foods have been criticized in the past for their irregular or inconsistent worker testing.

A major hurdle to evaluating whether Covid-19 is being adequately contained at food plants is a lack of transparency about workplace outbreaks. Experts say that rigorous data is essential to understanding whether outbreaks have been controlled, and whether new cases are simply not being reported.

FERN has found that only four states are regularly reporting, or releasing upon request, comprehensive data on Covid-19 outbreaks in food facilities, against the recommendation of public health experts. Some states have introduced more transparent data practices and then quickly rolled them back under pressure from business interests, who claim releasing workplace outbreak data violates worker privacy.

Dr. Perry, who has conducted research inside meatpacking plants, says the lack of a coordinated government effort to trace the spread of the virus in the sector is a major hurdle in preventing new outbreaks.

“What we’re in dire need of is a central reporting registry that is tracking, in real time, meatpacking cases,” she says. “That’s normally how infectious diseases are managed, controlled, and eradicated.”

Yet no federal entity is collecting and publishing that data. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has only released two reports on the spread of the virus at meatpacking plants, the most recent of which contains data from only 36 states and three spring months. The agency has also said it is not tracking outbreaks and cases among farmworkers. FERN has counted over 10,600 cases and 39 deaths linked to outbreaks at 261 farms since the start of the pandemic.

Food companies have rarely released worker testing data, if they are testing workers at all. Meatpackers have been resistant to calls from the public, the media, and members of Congress to make that data public, and in some cases have pressured state officials to stop releasing the information to reporters.

In the absence of consistent data on cases in these facilities, public health experts like Ramos have had to look at other trends to understand how workers have been faring in recent months.

“Colleagues have mentioned that in meatpacking communities, they are seeing an increase of cases in the schools, which could be an indicator that there’s more widespread transmission,” she says of the current situation in Nebraska.

In the absence of any public database on meatpacking worker illnesses, Ramos has had to rely on a personal contact at the state department of health for up to date information on the state’s meat plant outbreaks.

In addition to expanded plant safety, worker testing, and data transparency, experts say that there are a few policy tools that would help keep workers safe in the months ahead.

Shoring up the funding of public health departments could mean better data collection and reporting, says Perry. She notes that the past two decades have seen a decline of 250,000 public health jobs, leaving departments “ill-equipped and under-funded to confront [the pandemic].

“The health departments are beleaguered, and that very much influences their ability [to do] regular reporting,” she says. Even in cases where health departments are making an effort to make data available to the public, “they’re not resourced to do so.”

And when it comes to worker protections, UFCW’s Lauritsen wants to see federal action in the form of an enforceable emergency standard from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for meatpacking workers. That idea was pushed by Congressional Democrats as part of the coronavirus relief package, but opposed by business interests and never passed.

“I don’t want guidelines,” he says, referring to OSHA’s voluntary and unenforceable guidance, released in the spring, on how meatpackers should protect workers from Covid-19. “I want standards. It has to be in every facility in the United States.”

Lead image: Health care workers offer free COVID-19 testing from a Miami-Dade County mobile van in Miami in mid-October. AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

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