Ag industry pushes for early worker vaccine access

Source: By Marc Heller, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, December 8, 2020

First, employees in meatpacking plants were deemed essential workers in the early days of the pandemic.

Now the industry says they should stick out again — near the front of the line for COVID-19 vaccinations, behind hospital and emergency workers.

Meat industry groups have asked state and federal officials to make employees a high priority for vaccines, possibly along with other food industry workers. Their push is part of a growing discussion about the nation’s priorities in determining who receives shots early on and who has to wait.

In a letter to state governors, the organizations acknowledged the need to put hospital workers and high-risk individuals first.

“But prioritizing thereafter meat industry workers and their livestock suppliers addresses an industry that is part of the critical infrastructure and necessary to ensure the animals are harvested and processed,” said the groups, including the National Pork Producers Council, the North American Meat Institute and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

“Such prioritization would allow the utilization of an existing system to deliver the vaccine to a significant and important part of the workforce,” they said.

The meatpacking industry was hit especially hard at the beginning of the pandemic, with thousands of plant employees becoming sick in Iowa, South Dakota, North Carolina and other states. Companies including Smithfield Foods Inc. and Tyson Foods Inc. had to temporarily shutter plants, disrupting the supply chain and forcing the killing of tens of thousands of hogs that couldn’t be taken in (Greenwire, April 30).

In North Carolina alone, state health officials reported at least 2,772 positive tests among meatpacking workers in 28 plants, Duke University researchers wrote in August.

There and in Iowa, state health departments have faced criticism for not releasing more information about meat plant outbreaks or underreporting the numbers.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union reported at least 350 COVID-19 deaths among its front-line workers and at least 48,000 exposed or infected. The union urged the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices to make workers in meatpacking, groceries and food processing a high priority.

Meatpacking plants are especially risky, advocacy groups say, because workers stand in close proximity in closed quarters for hours.

In the early weeks of the pandemic, companies such as JBS USA faced criticism for inadequate worker protection, contributing to outbreaks. President Trump directed plants to remain open in April through an executive order that deemed them essential businesses — a move that may have exposed workers to increased risk before full protective measures were put into place.

Closures have wide impacts up the supply chain because most of the industry is concentrated in a few companies and a relatively small number of plants. A handful of closures created a crisis in farm country last spring as farmers lost money and had to safely dispose of animals that couldn’t be sent to plants for slaughter.

The industry responded to the crisis with safety measures in plants. Companies have spent more than $1 billion on physical upgrades in plants, improved ventilation systems, added personal protective equipment and taken other measures, the industry groups said.

“Critical components of that resilience are the programs and protocols packers implemented in the spring and summer, programs that have proven effective in limiting the spread of the virus even while the curve nationally has been soaring in the opposite direction.”

The measures haven’t eliminated all risk. JBS last week reported a new outbreak at its facility in Greeley, Colo.

Once vaccines become available, companies will face another question: whether to mandate shots for employees.

Smithfield, one of the nation’s biggest meatpackers, doesn’t anticipate such a requirement, the company said.

But the company will “partner with health officials, including with vaccine distribution and storage,” said Smithfield’s chief administrative officer, Keira Lombardo.

Plants aren’t alone in seeking priority treatment; farms might be on the list too. The National Pork Producers asked that the whole industry, down to the farm level, be deemed essential.

“With COVID cases on the rise in many states, vaccinations will play a key role in protecting essential workers, such as those in the food sector,” the group, representing 60,000 hog farmers, said in comments submitted to the CDC’s vaccination advisory committee. “It is imperative that on-farm and in-plant workers, who are integral to keeping Americans fed, have early access to COVID-19 vaccines.”