By late May, Washington’s Yakima County documented more than 600 COVID-19 cases among agricultural workers. Of those, 62% were workers in the apple industry and other packing operations or warehouses, according to county data. Yakima County now has the highest per-capita coronavirus infection rate on the West Coast with 4,834 cases as of June 10th.
In California, Monterey County is known as “the world’s salad bowl” for its massive vegetable farms, and as of June 5, Monterey reported 247 COVID-19 cases among agricultural workers, 39% of the county’s total cases. Coronavirus cases are also rapidly increasing in Florida’s agricultural community of Immokalee, where 2,581 cases were reported as of June 13, up significantly from its 966 cases reported June 8.
According to the Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, nearly 43,000 pounds of ground beef have been recalled for potential E. coli contamination, including packages sold at Walmart nationwide. The beef was produced June 1 at Lakeside Refrigerated Services of Swedesboro, New Jersey, sold under the brand names Thomas Farms and Marketside Butcher, and marked “EST. 46841” in the USDA inspection mark. The USDA classified the announcement as a “Class I” recall, meaning it’s a “health hazard situation where there is a reasonable probability that the use of the product will cause serious, adverse health consequences or death.” The recall notice said that consumers with questions should call the Lakeside Processing Center Call Center at 856-832-3881.
U.S. meatpacking plants have spent millions on mitigating coronavirus risks, yet they remain outbreak hotspots. Since April, cases in meat-processing facilities have increased by more than 100% to 20,400 total infections across 216 plants in 33 states, according to an analysis by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. At least 74 meatpacking employees have died due to COVID-19. In the past two months, Tyson Foods has installed barriers and provided masks to protect its workers, yet 24 of its plants have since reported outbreaks, two of which have sickened more than 800 workers. Prior to implementing safety measures, only five of the company’s facilities had outbreaks.
Smithfield Foods has also implemented protective measures such as temperature checks, plastic barriers, additional hand-sanitizing stations, and deeper cleaning and disinfection procedures after its Sioux Falls, South Dakota, plant became the country’s largest coronavirus hotspot. Since safety measures were installed, additional outbreaks have been reported at 11 Smithfield plants. At some other meatpacking facilities, protective measures have not been as thorough or enforced. A federal meat inspector in the Midwest reported to USA Today that she visited several plants where workers were not wearing masks, despite some of them testing positive for the coronavirus. After alerting a supervisor, she was told that as long as she had a mask she must continue working or use vacation time or take unpaid leave. .
Chief financial officer of Hormel Foods Corp. Jim Sheehan reports that the company has spent $20 million on coronavirus precautions since March. Expenses include on-site temperature checks, plexiglass dividers, masks, and special bonuses for front-line employees to minimize the risks of COVID-19. The company, best known for its Spam, turkey, and bacon products, anticipates spending up to $80 million on virus-related expenses in the second half of 2020. Sheehan is currently budgeting for both temporary and permanent costs while looking for efficiencies such as buying less expensive masks.
Tyson Foods Inc. has spent even more, including $120 million solely on front-line worker bonuses, according to chief financial officer Stewart Glendinning. Most of the costs are expected to be temporary, but it all depends on what is required to keep Tyson workers safe. “If you’re a business you want to make money,” said Glendinning, “and the only way to do that is by continuing to operate the plants with healthy employees.”
Upcycling has become a common method of reducing food waste by repurposing food and byproducts otherwise destined for landfills. The Denver-based Upcycled Food Association (UFA) has about 70 member companies that produce roughly 400 upcycled food products. For months, a UFA task force including researchers from Harvard University, Drexel University, NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), the World Wildlife Fund, and other nonprofit organizations has been working to define “upcycled foods.” On May 19, the UFA issued its final definition: “Upcycled foods use ingredients that otherwise would not have gone to human consumption, are procured and produced using verifiable supply chains, and have a positive impact on the environment.“
The global economy loses more than $940 billion a year due to food loss and waste, according to a study by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization. Now a single definition for “upcycled food” allows the development of new product categories in the food industry to reduce waste. Upcycling advocates say upcycled foods could cut over 70 billion tons of greenhouse gases generated by food loss and waste as well as create new jobs.
President Donald Trump signed an executive order urging processing plants to remain open based on the Defense Production Act (DPA). Trump intends to keep slaughterhouses open as a part of a critical infrastructure necessary for feeding the country amid growing supply disruptions stemming from the coronavirus lockdown. The decision has sparked a conflict between America’s largest meat producers and unions and activists invested in protecting the health of plant workers.
The executive order was signed just two days after Tyson Foods took out full-page ads in multiple nation-wide newspapers claiming closed processing plants are critical components to the nation’s food supply chain. Plant closures have forced farmers to “depopulate” animals that would otherwise be headed for the dinner table. Milk that can’t be sold to processors is being dumped; poultry broiler operations are throwing away eggs to reduce supplies; and even some produce such as onions and cabbages rot away in fields or are plowed back into the soil due to labor disruptions.
The United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) says if food workers are not kept safe, the food supply won’t be either. At least 20 meat processing plant workers have died, and 5,000 have either tested positive for the virus or been forced to self-quarantine, said UFCW. Even grocery store staff are reluctant to work if safety requirements haven’t been met. “People should never be expected to put their lives at risk by going to work,” said Stuart Appelbaum, President of the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union. The White House has been discussing the order with meatpacking executives to determine what meatpackers need to stay open and operate safely to prevent food shortages, an administration official said.
As restaurants and sports facilities remain closed, millions of tons of potatoes have gone unsold worldwide. In Belgium, the birthplace of fried potatoes, the government has asked citizens to do their part by eating more frites (fries). Otherwise, more than 750,000 tons of the country’s potatoes could be thrown away. More than 5,000 Belgian frites stands are closed, and Romain Cools, Secretary General of potato industry association Belgapom, confirms that the potato surplus has resulted from low demand in the frozen potato sector. Belgians typically eat frites at least once a week. Now, they’re being asked to eat twice that amount to help save Belgian farmers.
According to Cools, the frozen potato sector accounts for roughly 75% of Belgium’s potato processing. The other 25% of the industry faired well during the pandemic because more people were snacking and cooking at home. Cools reports that the industry could lose €125 million (US$135.5 million) if surplus potatoes are not moved this year. To help the cause, Belgapom has begun an initiative to send 22.7 tons of potatoes a week to food banks. .
The Delmarva Poultry Industry, a trade organization based in Georgetown, Delaware, reports that two million chickens in Delaware and Maryland will be euthanized due to labor shortages amid the coronavirus. The organization did not name the poultry company involved but emphasized that this was a last-resort decision and the company would use “humane methods” accepted by state regulations and the American Veterinary Medical Association guidelines.
According to Delmarva, the decision came after attempting other alternatives, including “allowing another chicken company to transport and process the chickens, and taking a partially processed product to rendering facilities to utilize for other animal feed.” The company stated, “if no action were taken, the chickens would outgrow the capacity of the chicken house to hold them.”
James Fisher, the trade organization spokesman, estimates that this decision will have a “very small” effect on chicken availability among consumers. Last year, Delmarva produced 609 million chickens, representing $3.5 billion in value. Delmarva’s loss of 2 million chickens is about 0.3 percent of last year’s total chicken production. While not a huge loss, this sort of food waste has become a familiar last resort for farmers and food processors throughout the nation.
To keep the U.S meat supply from bottoming out during the pandemic shutdown, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced regulatory rollbacks, expediting meat production. FSIS granted a beef processing plant and 11 poultry plants permission to use higher line speeds. These rollbacks enable chicken processors to slaughter up to 175 birds a minute, or 3 per second, whereas previous line speeds were set at 140 birds a minute. Previous regulations also required a minimum of 4 inspectors at each line, but now only 1 inspector per line is required, even with increased line speeds. Data analysis from the Guardian shows that at least 1 in 10 U.S. poultry slaughterhouses failed government salmonella tests last year. Rates of failure have also reached as a high as 34% in some categories. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), efforts to reduce salmonella outbreaks have largely been unsuccessful, with a 9% rise in the incidence rate over the last three years. Some analysts fear that increased line speeds, fewer government inspectors, and the recent rise in salmonella outbreaks could mean a longer-term reduction in the safety of the U.S. meat supply.