U.S. Reps. Diana DeGette (D-CO) and Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ) wrote to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert R. Redfield, M.D., on May 12th, calling attention to the need to further protect food production workers from the coronavirus. Federal, state and local agencies rely on CDC’s public health guidance in issuing their own guidance for industry, and health officials often request CDC epidemiological assistance teams, or Epi-Aids, to investigate urgent public health problems such as the spread of the coronavirus among workers at food production facilities.
“We write regarding [CDC’s] efforts to protect food production workers from the dangers of the coronavirus,” wrote Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chair Diana DeGette and Energy and Commerce Chairman Pallone. “Sustaining the nation’s food supply is critical. However, given the growing number of COVID-19 outbreaks in food production plants across the country, we are concerned that existing federal guidance may not be sufficient to protect the health of these vulnerable workers—many of whom are people of color or from low-income communities.”
The letter follows a series of coronavirus outbreaks in food production facilities and reports of crowded working conditions and management practices that may pressure employees to come to work while sick. According to the Food and Environment Reporting Network, as of May 11, 2020, at least 194 meat and processed food plants reported more than 13,500 confirmed coronavirus cases among workers at a range of food processing facilities, including facilities producing meat, cereal, baked goods, frozen vegetables and premade salads.
“The breadth of the COVID-19 outbreaks among workers in food production facilities presents disturbing health inequities for those who are low-income, people of color, and immigrant communities who are more likely to work in these settings,” the lawmakers continued. “In South Dakota, for example, the disproportionate rate of COVID-19 among people who are Black, Hispanic, and people of Asian descent is attributed in large part to the outbreak that occurred at the pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.”
DeGette and Pallone also expressed concern over reports that workers are not receiving adequate protective supplies, are unable to distance themselves from other workers and that few COVID-19 safety materials have been translated into different languages. For example, the lawmakers noted that at a meatpacking plant in Greeley, Colorado, where over 30 languages are spoken, reportedly very few coronavirus materials have been translated into different languages.
“While CDC has long fulfilled its mission to provide science-based health information to protect our nation from dangerous threats, it is unclear if the guidance and information provided to date to food production facilities has been sufficient to address the increased risks that these workers face,” DeGette and Pallone concluded.
As part of their inquiry, the Energy and Commerce Committee leaders requested a briefing on the efforts CDC is taking to keep workers in the food supply chain safe, as well as answers to a series of questions including:
-In light of the continued food production facility outbreaks and stakeholder concerns, is CDC planning to provide updated COVID-19 guidance to food production employers and workers?
-How is CDC coordinating with agencies with respective regulatory authority over food production facility worker safety to assess guidance effectiveness and enforcement?
-How many CDC Epi-Aid teams have been requested and deployed related to concentrated COVID-19 outbreaks within food production facilities?
A PDF copy of the letter is available here.
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