When future generations look back on the food industry during the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact on the meat and poultry plants are likely to take prominence. From the number of illnesses and deaths in these facilities to the plant closures and resulting supply-chain disruptions, meatpacking plants were at the epicenter of the issues the food industry faced. As a part of a “critical infrastructure industry,” the “essential personnel” of the food industry continued to go to work each day, exempted from state shelter-in-place orders.
But that did not exempt workers from the illness. In fact, the standard working conditions of food production facilities put these workers at high risk, which became increasingly evident in meatpacking. As of May 14, according to a Time magazine report citing union and USDA sources, more than 10,000 meat plant workers had been infected or exposed to the coronavirus and at least 30 had died; more than 300 USDA FSIS inspectors had tested positive or were under quarantine from the virus, and four had died; and at least 30 meat plants had closed at some point in the last two months.
One of the most problematic factors of COVID-19 was the initial lack of understanding, and slow evolution of knowledge, about the virus. Thus, food industry management teams were left to attempt to protect their essential workers in an environment in which the virus knowledge and public health advice changed on a daily basis for months. For example, at the beginning, masks were discouraged as being ineffective, with the primary advice being six-foot social distancing. But as more became known about the viral respiratory droplet spread, and the transmission by those who are asymptomatic, masks, along with the social distancing, have become the primary method of protection. It is, however, largely a protection of others vs. a protection of self, due to the infectious but pre-symptomatic incubation period of the virus and asymptomatic carriers.
A key factor that potentially affects risk for infection in meatpacking and other food facilities is the crowded working conditions. In many facilities, workers had been shoulder to shoulder in production areas, making it difficult to maintain high production and physical distancing at the same time. Additionally, off-site social distancing can be recommended but not enforced, and higher risk is likely from those using mass transit or carpooling.
COVID-19 is a challenge the likes of which those in the food industry today have never before seen. While it has led to the devastation or demise of some, it has caused others to dig deep and, as one stated, reinvent themselves out of necessity. It is the best practices of those that are featured in the special section that follows.
Editor’s note: While we would have liked to have included more from those facing significant negative impacts from COVID-19, we did not receive a response from the meat companies or others contacted.