Ranks of Absent U.S. Food Inspectors Swell on Virus, Union Says

Ranks of Absent U.S. Food Inspectors Swell on Virus, Union Says

(Bloomberg) --

Almost 1,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture food inspectors, or about 15% of the workforce, are off the job as the coronavirus outbreak left workers sick, quarantined or facing a high risk to health, figures provided by the union showed.

The ranks of ailing employees from the USDA’s Food Safety & Inspection Service swelled as the virus roils the nation’s meat industry, spurring shortage concerns. About 25% of pork capacity and 10% of beef is now off line, according to the United Food & Commercial Workers, which estimates that at least 13 U.S. plants faced shutdowns. The factory woes have spread to Brazil, another major producer and exporter.

The inspectors’ union in the U.S. is concerned that a lack of regulation and a system that relies on voluntary reporting from both companies and government employees puts workers at risk. The food-inspection service handles checks on meat, poultry and processed egg products.

While many inspectors are assigned to certain plants, some travel to different facilities, and others go on an ad hoc basis depending on staffing. Before employees are sent to other plants, no one checks on whether they have been exposed to the virus, and “there’s an expectation that inspectors should volunteer that information up,” said Buck McKay, a spokesman for the USDA’s Food Safety & Inspection Service.

Two inspectors have died from the virus since March. The USDA said Friday that 137 inspectors tested positive for the virus, and 125 are self-quarantined.

Health Risk

Either because of their age or other health conditions, 711 inspectors certified as of April 20 that they were at high risk from the virus as specified by guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. That figure was cited in a USDA document provided to Bloomberg by the inspectors union, the national joint council of food-inspector locals for the American Federation of Government Employees.

Those workers are part of the food-safety service, which employs about 6,500 inspectors. The USDA did not comment on the number of high-risk cases.

The USDA document also showed that there were 311 facilities with reduced operations. The agency did not comment on the number of plants.

There is no mandate for companies to inform inspectors about positive virus confirmations, said Paula Schelling, the acting chairwoman of the union.

There’s an expectation that companies notify inspectors, and this is reinforced in weekly calls with the industry, said McKay, the service spokesman.

Enough Staff

The USDA said employees currently working can handle regular inspections. The agency is increasing hours for part-time workers and calling on other trained inspectors from different parts of the department.

“Our dedicated personnel are still meeting all of their inspection responsibilities so that consumers can continue to enjoy a safe supply of meat and poultry products,” the USDA said.

Representative Jim Costa, a California Democrat, send a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to raise concerns on a directive to inspectors to find their own face masks.

“It is a time for us to work with USDA to ensure that we protect our food supply in a way that also prioritizes the safety of our workers,” Costa, chairman of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Livestock & Foreign Agriculture, said in a statement.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.