More Food Shortages Loom With Outbreaks at 60 U.S Plants

Demonstrators hold signs during a strike outside of a Allan Brothers Fruit apple packing house in Naches, Washington, on May 18, 2020.

Photographer: David Ryder/Bloomberg

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A caravan of vehicles decorated with black ribbons and memorial pictures crawled through Yakima, Washington, last week to mark the death of David Cruz, a 60-year-old fruit warehouse employee who died after contracting coronavirus. The county, a hub of agricultural activity where workers jam into often crowded factories to package apples and other foods, has the highest per capita infection rate on the West Coast.

It’s a grim reality that’s playing out across the country as Covid-19 spreads beyond the meat plants that have captured the national spotlight. At least 60 food-processing facilities outside the meatpacking industry have seen outbreaks, with more than 1,000 workers diagnosed with the virus, according to a new study from Environmental Working Group.

These are the first national numbers of their kind. The advocacy group compiled its figures using local media reports because there are no federal agencies reporting the data. The true total is almost certainly higher. Fruit and vegetable packers, bakers and dairy workers are risking infection as the virus spreads through processing plants where employees deemed essential have mostly remained on the job during the pandemic, sometimes laboring in close quarters.

“At our workplace, we were not ready for this virus. We didn’t talk about it. We didn’t know about it,” said Paula Zambrano, a 61-year-old with diabeteswho works part time as a fruit sorter for Borton & Sons in Yakima. She was so concerned by an outbreak at the plant in April that the she didn’t come in for three weeks, but then she had to return to support herself.

“People are infected and they come to work. They keep quiet about it,” she said. “We live from our work. We are surviving from our wages. If we have children, how will we feed them?”

Borton & Sons didn’t respond to voicemail messages left for John Borton, an owner and director of business operation, and Eric Borton, director of business development.

America’s food suppliers have seen some of the worst Covid-19 outbreaks of any industry outside health care. Dozens of meatpacking workers have died, with thousands falling sick. The virus has also spread among employees at farms, where in all likelihood cases will keep climbing as more than half a million seasonal migrants spread out across the nation as the summer harvesting season ramps up.

In addition to the human tragedy, the outbreaks also expose the vulnerability of America’s food supply. The meat industry was already plunged into crisis with plant shutdowns that sparked grocery-store shortages. Even as that situation eases, more shortfalls of individual food items and ingredients are likely in the months ahead unless the virus’s spread is slowed at food-processing plants, said Kevin Kenny, chief operating officer of Decernis, an expert in global food safety and supply chains.

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There are about 1.7 million workers at food and beverage manufacturing facilities, of which roughly 500,000 are at meat processors, according to a 2018 U.S. Census Bureau survey.

Unions, advocacy groups and experts have said that employers haven’t done enough to keep workers safe, with protective gear including face masks and gloves not being widely distributed until infections had already started to spread. Conditions inside plants can be crowded, and fast-moving processing lines may not allow enough space for social distancing. The largely immigrant labor-force also faces tough living conditions, with cramped housing — sometimes in employer provided bunkhouse-style dormitories that can sleep four to 10 to a room.

“As a general rule, the farther back you go in the supply chain, the more difficult it is to have proper social distancing and protective gear,” Kenny said. “Fruit, vegetable, nut and meat processing is a low-margin business.”

About 35% of food processing and dairy facilities have had at least one confirmed Covid-19 case, according to an International Brotherhood of Teamsters survey in May of union locals representing 79 plants. Roughly 80% of employers weren’t testing for the virus and more than a quarter of the workplaces didn’t allow employees to physically distance themselves 6 feet apart, the survey showed.

The Teamsters union is planning a national “call to action” on Wednesday with demonstrations in almost 30 cities for better protection of food supply-chain workers.

Still, the Teamsters have seen a “marked decline” in reports of outbreaks at union-represented food processing facilities in the past several weeks as employers have established more robust safety procedures, said Rome Aloise, director of the union’s dairy and food processing divisions. Union-represented employers are doing more no-touch temperature testing, strict adherence to safety protocols, including use of protective gear, and placing portable sanitation stations in workspaces, Aloise said.

“Non-union counterparts aren’t doing the same things,” he said.

Zambrano, the fruit worker in Washington, said her employer was initially slow to implement measures but now takes temperatures as employees enter work, provides masks and maintains social distancing.

Industry trade groups say that employers have invested heavily in measures to protect workers against infection risk while continuing to operate to maintain the nation’s food supply.