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Watchdog launches probe into USDA handling of inspections at meatpacking plants amid coronavirus

The U.S. Agriculture Department headquarters in Washington. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

The inspector general for the U.S. Agriculture Department is reviewing the agency’s handling of inspections at meatpacking plants amid the coronavirus pandemic, in part to determine how it protected front-line meat inspectors, according to a letter obtained by The Washington Post.

The review comes in response to a call from Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.), who asked the inspectors general of the USDA and Labor Department in August to determine whether actions by the Trump administration helped spread the coronavirus among workers at the plants.

“Early in the pandemic, meat processing plants saw some of the highest rates of COVID-19 infections, harming a workforce predominantly comprised of immigrants, refugees, and people of color, and raising serious questions about any federal actions that may have contributed to the spread of the virus in these facilities,” Bennet said in a statement to The Post.

“Hardworking Americans who are serving on the front lines during this crisis — and all meat processing plant workers — deserve answers. I’m glad the USDA Inspector General is making it a priority to get to the bottom of this.”

Meat and poultry plants were some of the earliest coronavirus hotspots in the United States last spring. Workers in the plants process dozens of animals a minute, standing side by side for hours at a time, making impossible the physical distancing recommended by public health experts to mitigate the spread of the virus.

As of this week, more than 57,500 workers at meatpacking plants have tested positive for the coronavirus, and 284 have died, according to data compiled by the Food and Environment Reporting Network. Federal data published last July showed that where information on race and ethnicity were available, 87 percent of the infections among meat and poultry workers occurred among racial or ethnic minorities.

Despite the risks, the meat industry flexed its political power at the state and federal levels last year, complaining that stay-at-home orders were forcing employees to miss work and suggesting a framework for an executive order emphasizing the importance of the food processing industry, reporting by the nonprofit investigative news outlet ProPublica found.

The Trump administration responded with an executive order in April that declared meat and poultry plants to be critical infrastructure, a move intended to keep the plants open but that labor advocates said would endanger workers. The Trump administration also took a lax approach to enforcement, declining to issue emergency Labor Department standards addressing the pandemic and issuing relatively small fines to meat plants whose workers had died.

More than 200 meat plant workers in the U.S. have died of covid-19. Federal regulators just issued two modest fines.

President Donald Trump’s executive order also sparked complaints from the union representing 6,500 federal food inspectors nationwide. Officials at the American Federation of Government Employees said the move put inspectors at grave risk and said workers lacked masks and hand sanitizer as they inspected facilities. By last May, three federal inspectors had died of the coronavirus, the union said then, and hundreds of other field employees had been exposed or infected with the virus.

The union declined to comment on news of the inspector general’s probe. The USDA inspector general’s office confirmed the probe.

In one of his first actions in office, President Biden ordered the Labor Department to revise its coronavirus safety guidance for employers and to consider issuing the stronger emergency standards.

Sarah Little, vice president of communications at the North American Meat Institute, a major industry trade group, said the industry had spent more than $1.5 billion since last spring in “comprehensive protections.”

“The meat and poultry industry is focused on continuing these effective protections, reaffirmed by the Biden Administration, and ensuring front-line meat and poultry workers are vaccinated as soon as possible, as employers, unions, civil rights leaders, and governments around the world agree these workers should be among the first vaccinated,” Little said in an emailed statement.

As they rushed to maintain U.S. meat supply, big processors saw plants become covid-19 hot spots

NAMI’s president, Julie Anna Potts, said in another statement that it was routine for trade associations to “suggest legislative language, comment on proposed rules, and other provisions that are shared with the government.”

The inspector general’s probe will look into how the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, which oversees federal meat inspectors charged with ensuring the safety of the nation’s meat supply, responded to the coronavirus outbreak to ensure inspections continued at slaughter houses and processing plants.

That will include looking into how the USDA inspection division spent $33 million in extra funding provided by Congress last March, what the agency did to ensure the health and safety of inspectors and how it determined whether inspectors were transferred from one plant to another. The watchdog will also probe whether the division had enough resources to buy coronavirus tests, personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer, workplace dividers, and other supplies. The inspector general will also probe what the agency did in response to Trump’s April executive order.

The American Rescue Plan, legislation backed by the Biden administration to provide economic relief and curb the coronavirus, includes $2.5 million in funding for the USDA’s inspector general to carry out oversight related to the pandemic.

The FSIS said in a statement to The Washington Post that its “top priority has been to protect the health and safety of our employees,” and that the agency has followed guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“FSIS protected its employees by supplying and requiring the use of protective equipment and took the unprecedented step of allowing those inspectors in high-risk health categories to self-certify with their supervisor and excuse them from inspection duties with full pay until the risk from covid-19 was mitigated,” the agency said.