Coronavirus spreading among fruit and vegetable packers

Dive Brief:

  • Cases of coronavirus are rising at fresh produce packing plants and farms in the U.S., according to Reuters.
  • The Trump administration indicated in May that it may extend the Defense Production Act to fruit and vegetable producers and processors to keep production lines running in the event that the coronavirus spreads further into this sector.
  • U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat, introduced legislation to provide companies grant and loan financing to upgrade machinery and purchase protective equipment, clean facilities and ensure adequate COVID-19 tests are available for employees. 

Dive Insight:

As the summer harvest season gets underway, workers find themselves in close quarters in both residential communities where they live as well as the processing facilities involved in packing, preserving and shipping.

These essential workers are laboring in an industry where the federal government has not made coronavirus safety rules mandatory, according to Politico. As a result, farms in every region of U.S. agriculture are seeing a spike in reported cases of the virus. Politico reported Doctors Without Borders has tested farmworkers harvesting in Florida and detected a 35% positive rate. That level is sharply higher than a 6% positive rate across the U.S. These elevated levels of positive diagnoses prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue additional guidance for farmworkers’ protection during the pandemic.

An increase in the number of coronavirus cases in the farming sector may continue to multiply and spread as one-quarter of the 2.5 million migrant farmworkers follow the harvest season from state to state. Already, Reuters reported hundreds of cases have been identified in major growing areas, such as Yakima County, Washington; Monterey County, California; and Immokalee, Florida.

Despite the federal government’s decision in March to limit the number of H-2A guest worker visas that were extended to applicants from Mexico and only permit returning seasonal workers, it appears the spread of COVID-19 has not been meaningfully curtailed. Not only was this moratorium on new visa applications ineffective in stopping the spread of the virus, but it has limited the number of foreign workers available to harvest crops during the finite growing season. Fruit and vegetable farmers heavily rely on foreign workers with the visa who can legally comprise 10% of their workforce, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Without the international workforce available to pick fruits and vegetables, farms may have to continue to plow under unharvested crops or hire an American workforce that commands a higher rate of pay. In either case, consumers could see fewer U.S.-grown fruits and vegetables in grocery stores later this year if there aren’t enough workers available to harvest them. And those crops that do make it to market may be more expensive because of added costs from having to pay workers higher rates to get the produce picked, processed and transported.

Cases of COVID-19 cases in the fresh fruit and vegetable industry follow on the heels of outbreaks in the meatpacking industry where thousands of workers fell ill, shuttering dozens of facilities and leading to a shortage of meat on grocery store shelves. So far, the produce industry has not had to endure mass shutdowns of its farms and processing plants.

After the virus was found to be quickly spreading among workers in pork and poultry plants, the industry implemented safety measures, including additional personal protective equipment, staggered work schedules and increased social distancing measures. While tracking from Food Dive shows many of these facilities have reopened, some major processing plants remain closed indefinitely. If produce processing facilities get ahead of the curve and are able to implement these preventative measures now, they may avoid a loss of labor or facility closures due to the spread of the illness during the crucial harvesting season.  

It is unlikely the Trump Administration will permit a widespread closure of processing, packing and transporting facilities that are essential to feeding Americans. However, if no precautions are taken and safety measures are not regulated by the federal government in conjunction with issuing orders to maintain operations, production could be hobbled by an insufficient labor force to get the job done.

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