By Mike Espy
As you may have heard, there’s a public health crisis unfolding in our nation’s meat and poultry processing plants. States across the country have reported coronavirus outbreaks in processing plants — and now thousands of essential workers are falling ill.
Here in Mississippi, the situation is getting worse by the day. We can overcome it if we act with determination and common sense — which is why I decided to share my thoughts on this crisis in an op-ed in Agri-Pulse, and I wanted to make sure you saw it.
At first glance, the president’s executive order to send employees back to work appears to be straightforward means of averting widespread food shortages. But the directive lays out no plan for ensuring the health and economic security of the processing plant workers.
There is a better way to do this. I know from experience.
During the 1990s, I served in the U.S. Department of Agriculture as the nation’s 25th secretary of agriculture. On my third day in office, we were notified of multiple deaths among children who had apparently eaten undercooked hamburger meat. We needed to act fast to prevent further deaths.
The department quickly tracked down the source of the meat to certain beef processing plants where the lines were moving so fast that inspectors failed to detect the virulent E. coli pathogens that killed the children. We determined that the pathogens were lodged in hamburger grinding machines.
Through fast, decisive action, we were able to mitigate the threat. We led the effort to impose further rules mandating rigorous inspections at each critical point in the beef processing cycle, and then imposed the same measures at poultry plants.
Here’s what we can do right now to protect meat and poultry processing workers in Mississippi and across the country:
- All workers must be tested for COVID-19 before plants are allowed to reopen
- Those without symptoms may rejoin the workforce, but must be tested frequently
- Plants also must be reconfigured to meet all CDC guidelines
- Workers must have masks, aprons, eyewear, and gloves, and should be stationed at least six feet apart
- All workers who are symptomatic or are found to have been exposed to the virus must be quarantined for the requisite period, and receive a mandatory full salary as federal emergency paid sick leave
If we do these things to protect our workers, the rest will fall into place. I’ll keep demanding basic rights for essential workers — and that’s what I’ll continue doing in the U.S. Senate.
The United States has taken pride in maintaining the “safest food supply in the world.” And we can still have it, as long as we remember that America’s bottom line is measured in the health and wellbeing of all of its people.