(Natural News) Outbreaks of the Wuhan coronavirus (COVID-19) are emerging in U.S. fruit and vegetable farms and packing plants, causing officials to worry about further disruptions to America’s food supply.
The outbreaks come after thousands of meat plant employees contracted the virus, which led to those plants shutting down. This resulted in shortages of meat in groceries around the country.
Workers harvesting fruits and vegetables in fields, in comparison, can easily implement social distancing. However, the conditions in the plants that package fruits and vegetables are similar to the tight, shoulder-to-shoulder conditions that made it easy for the coronavirus to spread in U.S. meatpacking plants.
“The line moves super fast. And you’re working side by side and back to back,” explained Edgar Franks, political director with Washington state farmworkers union Familias Unidas por la Justicia.
Coronavirus spreading through agricultural workers
In late May, health officials in Washington state’s Yakima County reported that there were more than 600 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among agricultural workers.
Earlier that month, workers at six fruit packing sites in the county went on strike due to concerns that they were not being provided adequate protection against the coronavirus, said Franks.
In California’s Monterey County, known as “the world’s salad bowl” for its sprawling vegetable farms, health department officials reported on June 5 that 247 agricultural workers had tested positive for the coronavirus — 39 percent of the county’s total caseload. According to Reuters, Monterey’s health department is one of the few among America’s largest fruit and vegetable producing counties that tracks coronavirus cases among agricultural workers.
In neighboring Kern county, Martin Baca, a 53-year-old employee at carrot grower Grimmway Farms died on April 30 due to a coronavirus infection that his family believes he contracted at work. According to a Grimmway spokesman, the company did not definitively know where Baca contracted COVID-19.
However, a Grimmway employee, who asked to only be identified as Juan, told Reuters that there were so many workers out sick that the number of people in his shift was reduced to a third of the needed workers.
“They made some announcements to stay six feet apart but that’s basically impossible when you are loading boxes onto the same pallet,” said Juan, who tested positive for coronavirus himself, despite not showing any symptoms. “Obviously you are going to be close to your co-workers.”
Grimmway declined to comment on how many of its workers tested positive for the coronavirus. It has, however, claimed that it has seen no issues with absenteeism.
Meanwhile, coronavirus cases are also on the rise near tomato-growing Immokalee, Florida. The spread of the virus among farmworkers in Florida could have significant implications for food production in the rest of the country. Many workers in Florida travel north through the summer as they follow the harvest through Georgia, the Carolinas and into the Northeast. An outbreak in Florida could spread the virus further into these regions.
In addition, many of these workers can’t afford to miss work, as such, are more likely to avoid testing or try to hide any symptoms.
“A lot of workers will hide their symptoms,” said Lupe Gonzalo, a farmworker at Immokalee “or say it is just a cold or if they have a fever, just say it is too hot outside.”
Government working to get ahead of infections at fruit and vegetable growers
The threat that fruit and vegetable growers experience – which is similar to those that befell meat processors – has government officials scrambling to address the issue.
In Florida, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has started partnering with county health departments and hotels to help educate workers and set up quarantine housing.
On May 19, a Food and Drug Administration spokesman suggested that the government could use the Defense Production Act to keep production moving at fruit and vegetable as “to protect the food supply and prevent significant food shortages.” Should this occur, the act would give companies a measure of liability protection should workers fall sick.
Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow introduced legislation on May 27 that would officer grants and loans to companies to allow them to upgrade machinery, purchase personal protective equipment, clean facilities and fun testing for COVID-19.
“You can get ahead of this, which is what didn’t happen in the meatpacking situation,” she said in an interview with Reuters. “The best way to protect our supply chain is to keep workers safe.”
Learn more about the coronavirus at Pandemic.news.