One U.S. meat inspector asks himself each morning: “Is this the day that I’m possibly given a death sentence for staying on the job?”

Another inspector said meat company managers “stonewall" her when she asks where in the plant workers have tested positive for the coronavirus so she can protect herself.

Said a third: “We just want to know that our coworkers who are contracting the virus are OK.”

Across the country, federal meat inspectors say they are terrified about the pandemic and that the agency is failing to take even basic steps to protect them. A chief concern: Federal meat inspectors lack face masks and hand sanitizer as they enter some of the nation’s most virus-ridden workplaces and are forced to rely on the companies they inspect to provide safety equipment, the U.S. Department of Agriculture acknowledges.

JBS Beef in Souderton closed temporarily because of the pandemic.
TYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer
JBS Beef in Souderton closed temporarily because of the pandemic.

The inspectors’ fears have become so widespread that agency leaders are holding weekly national “town hall” conference calls with thousands of inspectors to air concerns. The agency admits to a growing problem: 137 inspection employees have tested positive for the virus since the pandemic began and 704 have stopped working because their chronic health conditions make them more vulnerable to the virus.

A federal meat inspector in New York state died from the virus in March. And a second meat inspector died in the Chicago area, USA Today reported on Friday. The employee had a “patrol assignment,” visiting several meat processing facilities daily to inspect them and his wife also contracted the disease, according to the report. A USDA spokesperson did not immediately respond to inquiries.

In calls on Wednesday, Paul Kiecker, head of the 8,000-employee Food Safety and Inspection Service, sought to rally his anxious troops, telling them that the agency would seek hazard pay or bonuses if Congress agreed to provide the funding. But Kiecker insisted that inspectors stay on the job and warned that they could be asked to travel as plants shut down.

“We have to keep the nation fed,” Kiecker told his workers. “It’s a reality, not just during COVID-19 but other times as well. We still need you to understand that we need to provide inspection services in order for [meat plants] to operate.” He said the agency has not shut down any plants.

The extraordinary conference calls come as COVID-19 has ravaged meatpacking plants and slaughterhouses, with companies temporarily closing facilities in Iowa, Colorado, South Dakota, and Pennsylvania, leading to some worry about meat shortages on supermarket shelves.

One inspector calls the meat plants “ticking time bombs" because workers often toil in close proximity to one another for hours at a time and eat together in cafeterias. State health officials say half of the COVID-19 cases in South Dakota have been traced to the Smithfield Foods pork-processing plant in Sioux Falls, a leading national virus “hot spot” and which has temporarily closed.

Many inspectors are stunned that more than a month into the pandemic, the agency still lacks face masks and hand sanitizers for its employees who may enter several processing plants a day. Kiecker acknowledged on the calls Wednesday that “delivery dates” for face coverings and sanitizer have been "continually pushed back.” He said the supplies had been diverted to health-care workers.

As for what his employees should do, given that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance to wear face masks, Kiecker said, "We would expect the plant to provide those to you.”

The companies also are planning to offer tests for inspectors, according to two callers, but they wondered if they could take them given that these are companies that they inspect. Agency officials suggested that they continue talking about the issue after the call.

The workers at the plants are also fearful. Anthony “Marc” Perrone, head of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, said in a Zoom press conference that 13 union members in meat plants have died from the virus and 5,000 have either tested positive or were exposed to it.

In addition, 14 unionized plants in a wide swath of the nation — South Dakota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Indiana, Minnesota, Missouri, and Pennsylvania — that employed almost 25,000 workers have closed for cleaning and to implement new work procedures for social distancing. About a quarter of American pork production and 10% of beef output has now been shuttered.

“I have no doubt about it," Perrone said when asked if he believed there would be meat shortages in supermarkets in the coming months.

In one of the latest closings, Tyson Foods Wednesday temporarily shuttered its vast pork plant in Waterloo, Iowa, that processed 19,500 hogs a day. That action came after 180 workers tested positive for COVID-19. Positive results among the 2,800 employees are expected to rise dramatically as Tyson tests the remainder of the plant’s workforce later this week.

In Pennsylvania, four unionized meat plants have closed in recent weeks due to the pandemic. The CTI Foods hamburger-grinding plant in King of Prussia reopened last week. The three other plants, Empire Kosher in Central Pennsylvania, Cargill Meat Solutions in Hazleton, and the JBS Beef plant in Souderton, Montgomery County, began reopening on Monday. The Pennsylvania plants employed more than 3,000 workers.

Enock Benjamin, a Haitian immigrant and 70-year-old union steward at the JBS facility in Souderton, died on April 3 from respiratory failure brought on by the pandemic virus, the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office determined.

Enock Benjamin, a union leaders at JBS Beef in Souderton, died on April 3 from respiratory failure brought on by the coronavirus.
Facebook, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776
Enock Benjamin, a union leaders at JBS Beef in Souderton, died on April 3 from respiratory failure brought on by the coronavirus.

Wendell Young IV, president of the 35,000-member United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776, which represents employees at all four Pennsylvania plants, said he was satisfied with the safety improvements announced so far. At JBS, workers or visitors are scanned for temperatures and walk through a foam solution to sanitize their shoes. Plastic barriers are also placed on the cutting lines to separate workers.

“They have people stationed everywhere through the plant to maintain distancing and control traffic through narrow hallways,” Young said.

But safety procedures vary by company and facility, officials in the industry say.

And U.S. inspectors say they are mostly at the mercy of the big meatpacking plants that don’t share information on employees with COVID-19. Some meat-processing plants also aren’t practicing safe social distancing, noting that some employees are still arriving together in vans, the inspectors said.

Tyson Foods, workers wear protective masks and stand between plastic dividers at the company's Camilla, Ga., processing plant. Tyson has added the plastic dividers to create separation between workers because of the coronavirus.
AP
Tyson Foods, workers wear protective masks and stand between plastic dividers at the company's Camilla, Ga., processing plant. Tyson has added the plastic dividers to create separation between workers because of the coronavirus.

“It has caused anxiety and fear because you don’t know if those employees were standing next to you or you were walking down the hall with them,” an inspector from the Phoenix area said on a conference call.

“I have a call with industry today and I will bring this up again,” Kiecker responded. “I will definitely bring it up and tell industry that we need that information."

The spokesperson for the Food Safety and Inspection service did not answer a question on the status of those conversations.

Pay for U.S. food and consumer-safety inspectors starts around $35,000 a year, according to the federal government’s job portal. There are 57 jobs open in the agency. An Indeed.com survey, based on data from current and former employees, says the average pay at the service is $45,572.

One inspector said the overall lack of information “just doesn’t sit well. We are putting ourselves out there to make sure that the food supply is not disrupted.” But when he spoke with company managers, they told him “that’s what you signed up for. That is your job.”

“When we are at a plant that is shut down, all the other plants know that we came from a hot spot and we are looked at like we have leprosy and it is not fun at all,” said another inspector on the conference call.

Still another colleague described a difficult trip to Ohio to inspect a meat plant, staying in a hotel with her children because they didn’t have school and she had no child care. The hotel staff were unfriendly and suspicious. Agency officials told her to find a different hotel next time.

Added one inspector in an email: “I walk into establishments with the mindset of: Is this the day I contract COVID-19?"