A U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector tasked with ensuring food safety at meatpacking plants died Thursday after testing positive for COVID-19, a source who was on a call in which the federal agency confirmed the death told USA TODAY.
It is the latest in a growing wave of coronavirus cases and deaths stemming from the meatpacking industry.
As of Thursday, there are more than 2,700 reported positive cases tied to meatpacking facilities at 60 plants in 23 states, and at least 17 reported worker deaths at 8 plants in eight states, according to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, which is partnering with USA TODAY to cover agribusiness.
The identity of the employee has not been publicly released. However, USA TODAY’s source said he worked in the Chicago district office of the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), a program of the USDA.
It is at least the second FSIS inspector to die from the novel coronavirus, according to Bloomberg News, citing an inspectors union leader who said another inspector died in New York in March.
The safety of those employees, and the USDA’s efforts to protect them, has recently come into question. Such inspectors are often essentially embedded in meatpacking facilities, standing in close proximity with workers as they examine carcasses to ensure food safety.
The FSIS employs about 8,000 inspectors who oversee all domestic slaughter operations across more than 6,400 plants nationwide, according to the agency’s latest budget request. These federal workers inspect each livestock and poultry carcass and verify operations at each processing establishment at least once per shift.
But the agency is chronically understaffed. In some districts, up to one in every seven federally funded meat and poultry inspection positions were sitting vacant — a total of nearly 700 nationwide, according to a 2019 Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting investigation.
This is despite the fact that their workload continues to increase. In fiscal year 2015, they inspected a total of 145.2 million head of livestock and 9.17 billion poultry carcasses. By fiscal year 2019, those numbers jumped to 164 million head of livestock and 9.83 billion poultry carcasses, the agency’s budget reports show.
Because of low staffing levels, federal food inspectors often face burnout and heavy workloads. One worker, who was eight months pregnant, had to spend three weeks working double-shifts. When she eventually called in sick, there was no one to take her place, the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting found.
Sometimes, consumer safety inspectors were forced to abandon their job duties and fill in as slaughter line inspectors to ensure the federally mandated inspections happened.
Tony Adams, a member of the UFCW union at a Pilgrim's Pride plant in Georgia, told reporters on Thursday that the USDA inspectors at his plant now all had masks and some had shields.