Coronavirus Data on Food Inspectors Overdue, House Democrats Say

Congressional Democrats are pressing the Agriculture Department to publish online the number of confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths among food safety inspectors, citing a congressional mandate earlier this month.

“I call upon the Department to rectify this immediately,” said House Appropriations Agriculture-FDA Subcommittee Chairman Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.) in a statement Monday. “The public is entitled to this information.”

The department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service “tragically failed to protect its workforce” during the Covid-19 outbreak, lawmakers said in a report on an appropriations bill that includes USDA funding. The agency, which monitors the safety of the nation’s meat, poultry, and processed egg supply, employs almost 8,800 inspection personnel at more than 6,400 facilities, according to a summary of the four-bill “minibus” spending package (H.R. 7608).

Coronavirus-related deaths claimed at least four inspectors, the report said, adding that the department failed to provide immediate personal protective equipment to its workforce. The agency also relocated inspectors from plants shuttered because of Covid–19 outbreaks to other establishments, “potentially increasing the spread of the disease and placing other people at risk,” the report said.

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A butcher works to process meat at Old Fashion Country Butcher in Santa Paula, Calif. on May 21, 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic shuttered some plants and strained the nation’s food supply chain. The company abides by federal safety procedures and conducts wellness checks daily, the owner, Kent Short, said.

The House report directed the FSIS to post confirmed virus cases and deaths among its inspectors on its website, updating the numbers within five days of obtaining new information. The agency has yet to comply with the mandate, which took effect on July 9.

An FSIS spokesperson said the agency has been in constant communication with Congress throughout the pandemic, keeping lawmakers apprised of the status of its workforce and will continue to do so. The official said employees are the agency’s greatest asset, and the FSIS stands by its efforts to keep them safe.

Covid-19 outbreaks at major processing plants in the pandemic’s early months forced operations to halt, disrupting the country’s food supply. President Donald Trump required meatpackers to resume in late April with an executive order invoking the Defense Production Act.

A House Agriculture Committee member’s aide said 480 FSIS inspection personnel had tested positive for Covid-19, and five had died as of June 25, according to data relayed last month by the department’s Under Secretary for Food Safety Mindy Brashears.

The Agriculture Department didn’t immediately respond to a request to confirm the House aide’s statement.

The department would receive almost $24 billion in total discretionary money for fiscal 2021 in the spending bill that the House passed on July 24. The legislation would spend more than $1 billion for FSIS programs.

‘Fumbled Response’

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said the Trump administration “‘tragically failed’ to protect the entire country.”

“On top of their fumbled response to the coronavirus, this administration, and USDA in particular, have interfered with good government oversight in an apparent attempt to hide lack of worker protections and the prioritization of corporate profits over safety,” DeLauro, a subcommittee member, added.

The White House declined to comment on the record.

The four Republican members of the House subcommittee—ranking member Jeff Fortenberry (Neb.), Robert Aderholt (Ala.), Andy Harris (Md.), and John Moolenaar (Mich.)—either declined to comment or didn’t respond to requests.

FSIS employees have been put “in harm’s way,” said Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), another subcommittee member. “Sending workers back to cramped processing lines without providing protective gear and increasing their line speeds has had deadly consequences.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Megan U. Boyanton in Washington at mboyanton@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com; Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com

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