May 15, 2020 Media

Homeland Preparedness News: Reps. Pallone, DeGette seek answers from CDC on keeping food production workers safe

U.S. Reps. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ) and Diana DeGette (D-CO) are asking officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on the steps taken to further protect food production workers from the coronavirus.

There have been a series of COVID-19 outbreaks in food production facilities as well as reports of crowded working conditions and management practices that may pressure employees to come to work while sick. As of May 11, at least 194 meat and processed food plants reported more than 13,500 COVID-19 confirmed cases among workers at a range of food processing facilities that produce meat, cereal, baked goods, frozen vegetables, and premade salads, according to the Food and Environment Reporting Network.

“We write regarding [CDC’s] efforts to protect food production workers from the dangers of the coronavirus,” Pallone and DeGette wrote to CDC Director Robert Redfield. “Sustaining the nation’s food supply is critical. However, given the growing number of COVID-19 outbreaks in food production plants across the country, we are concerned that existing federal guidance may not be sufficient to protect the health of these vulnerable workers—many of whom are people of color or from low-income communities.”

Federal, state, and local agencies rely on CDC’s public health guidance in issuing their own guidance for industry. Health officials often request CDC epidemiological assistance teams, or Epi-Aids, to investigate urgent public health problems such as the spread of the coronavirus among workers at food production facilities.

“The breadth of the COVID-19 outbreaks among workers in food production facilities presents disturbing health inequities for those who are low-income, people of color, and immigrant communities who are more likely to work in these settings,” they wrote. “In South Dakota, for example, the disproportionate rate of COVID-19 among people who are Black, Hispanic, and people of Asian descent is attributed in large part to the outbreak that occurred at the pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.”

Further, the lawmakers expressed concern over reports that workers are not receiving adequate protective supplies or can practice social distancing at work.

“While CDC has long fulfilled its mission to provide science-based health information to protect our nation from dangerous threats, it is unclear if the guidance and information provided to date to food production facilities has been sufficient to address the increased risks that these workers face,” Pallone and DeGette concluded.

The lawmakers requested a briefing from CDC officials on efforts to keep workers in the food supply chain safe.