Even as coronavirus rates in meat and poultry plants have dropped significantly and are five times lower than the general public, the meatpacking industry was questioned and criticized by members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health, and Human Services on its response to protecting workers during the coronavirus crisis. Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said “many meatpacking and agricultural companies have blatantly put profits over people” and “few are being held to account.”
Committee members and labor witnesses stated that OSHA had failed in their responsibility of protecting workers and called on OSHA to issue enforceable workplace safety requirements for companies during the pandemic. They also called for increased inspections and enforcement and highlighted the need for additional OSHA inspectors.
Deborah Berkowitz, National Employment Law Project, said OSHA had “abdicated all responsibility” by failing to investigate numerous safety complaints. She called on OSHA to issue the COVID-19 related Emergency Temporary Standard by March 15. It must require upgraded masks, social distancing and improved ventilation. Berkowitz said companies did not respond quickly enough to provide masks to employees and implement social distancing.
Carmen Rottenberg, managing director of Groundswell Strategy and former FSIS administrator, said companies have made great progress in dealing with coronavirus and have spent an estimated $1.5 billion to protect workers through improved ventilation, masks, increased sanitation, physical barriers, and distancing. She said it is critical that states make meatpacking employees a priority in receiving the COVID vaccines.
The North American Meat Institute (NAMI) in a press release this week indicated the safety measures implemented in meat and poultry plants had reduced the number of COVID cases.
NAMI said, “The latest analysis of independent data reveals that COVID-19 infection rates among meat and poultry workers are more than five times lower than in the general U.S. population, 95% lower than peak case rates in the sector from May 2020.”
NAMI pointed out that the University of Nebraska Medical Center found that the combination of universal masking and physical barriers reduced cases significantly in 62% of meat facilities studied. An analysis published in The Lancet in June 2020 found that distancing of three feet and using facemasks each reduce transmission by about 80%. Using eye protection reduces transmission by about 65%.
USDA Fair and Competitive Markets adviser named
Andy Green has been appointed to serve as USDA’s senior adviser for Fair and Competitive Markets. Secretary Vilsack said in making the appointment, “We must create a more level playing field for small and medium producers, and a more balanced, equitable economy for everyone working in food and agriculture, including immigrants and seasonal farmworkers.”
Green previously worked for Center for American Progress where he co-authored a paper, “A Fair Deal for Farmers,” about market concentration and expanding producer rights. The paper made several recommendations, including implementing a temporary moratorium on mergers in the agriculture sector by establishing statutory “caps on concentration” above which mergers would not be permitted in various agriculture markets.
It calls for the creation of an Independent Farmer Protection Bureau (IFPB), modeled after the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau which would be an independent entity fighting for farmer’s interests against “highly concentrated” agribusiness.
Meat Institute takes Prop 12 to Supreme Court
The North American Meat Institute (NAMI) is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 12, “The Farm Animal Confinement Initiative (Prop 12).”
NAMI filed a petition asking the Supreme Court to review a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit because it is unconstitutional and would hurt the nation’s food value chain by increasing costs for producers and consumers.
The brief states the decision by the Ninth Circuit conflicts with other federal courts’ decisions if the “Constitution limits a State's ability to extend its police power beyond its territorial borders through a trade barrier dictating production standards in other States and countries."
It further pointed out that the decision “insulates in-state farmers from out-of-state competition, while imposing crushing burdens on out-of-state farmers and producers who have no political voice to shape the regulations that California has unilaterally determined to foist upon their operations outside of California."
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