As the number of coronavirus cases continues to grow, hundreds of federal food inspectors have been exposed to COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.
On Monday, the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) told CBS News that about 145 employees were absent from work as of April 28 due to coronavirus diagnosis, while another 130 were under self-quarantine due to exposure to the coronavirus.
FSIS is the federal agency that inspects food supply across the United States.
On Tuesday, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) said three meat inspectors died of the virus. One was from New York City, one from Chicago, and another from Mississippi.
Paula Schelling, AFGE’s acting president, 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 added. “People are still going in there and doing inspection.”
Last week, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union said the virus has killed at least 20 workers who were involved in meatpacking and food processing.
“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,” said the UFCW.
Schelling said that one of the concerns for food inspectors is that plants do not have to inform them if someone tests positive for COVID-19 in a plant.
She said, “Inspectors can hear it second-hand at best when they’re not notified.”
More often than not, FSIS inspectors work shoulder-to-shoulder with plant employees during inspections, in environments that are not conducive to social distancing.
Senior federal government affairs representative Tom Corbo said it is “virtually impossible in these meatpacking plants to practice social distancing.”
The USDA has failed to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) to inspectors despite knowing that they would come in close contact with workers. The agency said it is still working to “identify PPE needs in the food supply chain.”
However, the agency has offered inspectors a $50 stipend so they can buy facemasks or other protective gear they need.
Some experts have expressed concerns over the COVID-19 impact on inspectors, stating that it could jeopardize the safety of consumers.
Limited staffing could affect the inspection, meaning there would be compromised carcasses of meat, poultry, and pork, which could further raise safety concerns. Corbo said, “I don’t think the USDA is providing adequate staffing to protect the food supply.”