This month, two large meat-processing plants in Iowa closed their doors after large-scale outbreaks of COVID-19 at their facilities. Last week, Tyson Foods in Columbus Junction announced a closure at least through the end of this week after more than two dozen employees tested positive for COVID-19. And on Monday, National Beef closed its doors after numerous employees tested positive at their plant in Tama.
Iowa isn’t unique. Across the nation, food producers have closed large-scale processing facilities because of outbreaks among workers. The closures are threatening to affect the nation’s food supply. On Monday, the CEO of Smithfield Foods in South Dakota warned that America was “perilously” close to a shortage.
In addition to the outbreak of the virus, NPR reported that food processing plants also face a shortage of workers because of a lack of child care and transportation.
Additionally, with the borders closed, travel restricted and the pandemic predicted to continue through the summer, it’s safe to predict that our food supply will face another crisis with the shortage of seasonal workers.
The COVID-19 crisis has revealed a lot of our nation’s inequality. But now, we are seeing that our nation’s food supply is a precarious house of cards, entirely reliant on workers who often are immigrants, resettled refugees and undocumented immigrants.
During the mad cow disease and the bird flu and swine flu outbreaks, the USDA worked swiftly to protect our food. But what about the people who are responsible for making sure that food gets into our hands? Especially when many of the workers are not native English speakers or may be worried about reporting hazardous working conditions because of their immigration status or for fear of losing their jobs.
Many of these workers will not see stimulus checks because of their immigration status.
Iowa and other state governments, along with OSHA and the federal government, need to focus on long-term solutions to help the essential workers who every day risk their lives and their welfare to ensure that Americans have access to food.
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These measures should have been proactive. There should have been forethought, but it’s too late for that now.
In her news conference Tuesday, Gov. Kim Rey-nolds said that it is up to companies to determine when to reopen their doors. But that’s hardly a sustainable or realistic plan, given that the companies have been reactive rather than proactive. Companies and the states that house them must work to ensure widespread testing and routine temperature checks are mandatory. Additionally, state agencies need to be vigilant in inspecting the plants, knowing full well that employees are too scared to report violations.
The reality is clear: If we don’t protect people at every level, everyone suffers.
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