If there has been a saving grace in this global pandemic, it is that food supplies have remained relatively steady. While there may be spot shortages of eggs or meat or cleaning supplies, that has been due more to hoarding than actual shortages.
That may be changing. In its relentless march across the population, COVID-19 has begun to spread to meat processing plants. An essential business, packing houses nevertheless are not immune to the disease. There have now been at least 2,700 cases tied to 60 such facilities in 23 states, according to a joint investigation by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting and USA Today. Locally, outbreaks have closed the JBS pork processing facility in Worthington, Minn., and the Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux Falls, S.D.
So far, officials have been careful to say that the nation’s meat supply can cope with spot plant closures. But further spread of the virus will take a toll at some point. That makes it imperative for state and federal officials to mandate that proper safety and hygiene practices are in place, bolstered by regular outside inspections.
Gov. Tim Walz told an editorial writer that the state is working with JBS officials to make a test case of the Worthington plant, with massive employee testing and changes in practices to limit possible transmission.
Whether that can be done safely remains to be seen. JBS, in announcing the Worthington closure, said it had already begun temperature testing of all employees; provided masks and other PPE to workers and mandated their use; staggered shifts; increased spacing in common areas; used plexiglass dividers in some areas; instituted daily deep-cleaning and hired additional workers for continuous cleaning.
If all that was done before the closure, that is troubling indeed, because it would mean even more stringent measures would have to be taken to maintain a disease-free plant. In responding to an editorial writer’s request for clarification, JBS spokesman Cameron Bruett wrote on Thursday that “we have evolved our practices as we learn more from partnering with experts and medical professionals.” Bruett said the company has also hired “third-party epidemiologists” to review company procedures and was consulting with the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety.
“We can’t destroy our food supply,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., told an editorial writer. Protecting it, she said, means testing to remove sick workers from the line; changing production practices; and issuing masks and other protective gear. “OSHA standards need to be enforced. Inspections have got to be part of this. [Companies] know that. But by looking out for their workers, they also protect the food supply and all of us.” Klobuchar and Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., are among 36 senators who have written to the administration seeking specific protection measures.
Bill Blazar, a longtime business advocate who recently retired from the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, called in a recent Star Tribune opinion piece for measures to protect a food supply system he now says is at risk in all areas: production, processing and distribution.
Blazar noted that a large part of the nation’s food “brain trust” resides in this state and should be tapped. We agree.
If public and private sector leaders can cooperate, trade ideas, make needed changes, the country’s food supply can be made resilient enough to continue feeding a nation even during a pandemic. A possible boon? We may also learn ways to quell the contaminations, from E. coli to salmonella, that regularly sickened Americans long before the pandemic.