In the past few weeks, the meat industry has quickly emerged as a new hotbed for COVID-19. Many meatpacking plants have been idled by the virus as workers crammed together are sickened. Farmers with no place to slaughter animals are euthanizing them en masse, and the bottleneck is causing major meat companies like Tyson Foods to warn of meat shortages, a prospect not faced by Americans in generations.
With the food system under threat, where are the food regulators? The federal government has invested for decades in regulatory tools to fight infectious disease in the food system, ensuring a robust response to threats from E. coli, Salmonella and even bioterrorist attacks. But never have modern regulators faced the threat of disease disrupting our food system not through food, but by sickening the workers who make it.
The current rules did not foresee these circumstances. Food safety regulations that pre-date the pandemic may ensure that surfaces are sanitized and workers wash their hands, but of course are silent on social distancing, the need for personal protective equipment that can filter out viruses, or steps to take when a worker tests positive for COVID-19.
Even with limited authority, the Food and Drug Administration is making an effort to guide the industry it regulates, issuing advice covering everything from the use of facemasks in the food sector to what to do if a food worker tests positive for COVID-19.
In contrast, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has much more intensive involvement in daily food production than FDA, has done comparatively little. Animals cannot be slaughtered without constant USDA inspection, meaning federal inspectors are exposed on the front lines of the outbreak. That has already led to the deaths of two inspectors and the illnesses of many more.
Yet the USDA has offered the meat industry almost no advice on COVID-19, deferring to state and local health departments and other federal agencies. USDA has not managed to provide personal protective equipment for its own workers, even as they report to work in plants where COVID-19 has become widespread.
USDA’s food safety officials have also shown a lack of judgment by striving to speed food production in ways that run the risk of worsening the outbreak. Inexplicably, the agency in April ramped up a program granting regulatory waivers to speed poultry lines. Faster slaughter means workers must remain crowded together to process the higher volume of meat, undermining social distancing.
USDA is also detailing inspectors in order to prevent local staffing shortages, a practice that forces inspectors who may have been exposed in one plant to travel to new locations, potentially seeding the second plant with virus as they move.
In some ways, these shortcomings are due to laws that give the agencies most involved in regulating our food system tools to protect it from every threat except the current one. FDA and USDA regulations focus on food safety risks, not human health, a limitation that may have to be re-visited by Congress.
Yet food regulators do have room for action even under existing rules: USDA and FDA are obligated by law to protect their own inspectors’ health, and could rely on that authority as grounds to require the food industry to take steps to reduce COVID-19 risks so inspectors ensure the safety of our food while remaining safe themselves.
At USDA in particular, such measures would have real clout, as the agency has authority to withdraw its inspectors if worker health is threatened, shutting down production. Canada’s food inspection agency used a similar authority in late March to require slaughter plants to respond to COVID-19.
Unfortunately, the administration failed to prioritize worker health as the outbreak spread. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) had largely been missing in action until Sunday, when it finally partnered with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to publish interim guidance on COVID-19 in the meat industry. Even with that guidance, many of the measures workers have requested, like provision of personal protective equipment and COVID-19 testing, remain optional for companies.
The damage to our food system is likely just beginning, and while it is hard to know how much could have been prevented by swifter action, it’s clear that federal regulators can and must do better moving forward to protect workers, inspectors and the food supply.