A consumer watchdog group says the federal government is treating its meat inspectors unfairly and endangering their health as well as that of meat plant employees amid the coronavirus pandemic.

This week the group Food & Water Watch leveled serious charges at the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) after the online publication Government Executive posted a story with unnamed government employees describing alarming situations with meat inspectors. The watchdog group says the government is shuffling around inspectors between “hot spot” plants, increasing the risk of the spread COVID-19, also referred to as the coronavirus.

“. . . the Agriculture Department is scrambling to reassign employees from shuttered facilities to those with new outbreaks and is instructing those with known exposure to the novel coronavirus to continue reporting to work,” according to a statement from Food & Water Watch.

A spokesperson for the FSIS told Food Safety News that the claims in the statement from the consumer group are patently false, saying “we are minimizing the movement of our inspection personnel. However, there are times where it is necessary to move inspection personnel to fulfill our legal mandate to provide inspection.”

He also said the Government Executive story was wrong on many points. The spokesman said from the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s FSIS has been following the guidance from the CDC for workplace precautions. As with other food businesses, the meat packing industry employees are considered essential and therefore are reporting to work as usual during the economic shutdown of the country.

It is inappropriate to assume a one size fits all policy can be applied to the meat inspectors, the spokesperson said. 

“Individual employees need to talk to their supervisors because each situation is unique,” according to the FSIS spokesperson. “We are handling situations with employees on a case-by-case basis.”

The FSIS spokesperson said the agency absolutely has not told employees to go to work it they are sick.

Food & Water Watch Senior Government Affairs Representative Tony Corbo said the government told FSIS employees during a town hall meeting this week that they should continue to report to work even if they know they have been exposed to COVID-19.

“One inspector on the call summarized the message as, ‘So just wear gloves and a face mask and work until you feel the symptoms of being sick,’ ” according to Corbo who said  three FSIS employees confirmed the new policy.

The question of gloves and mask availability is also raised by the consumer group. The government is not providing meat inspectors with masks or other protective gear related to the virus because the CDC has not issued guidance to that effect, according to the FSIS spokesman. He said, the CDC hasn’t recommended masks for anyone except frontline personnel like health care workers.

“The recommendation is for face coverings in some settings,” the FSIS spokesman said. “If an establishment is requiring the use of face masks it is up to the establishment to provide those to the inspectors.”

The government is reimbursing inspectors up to $50 for face coverings if they use their own.

One point confirmed by the FSIS spokesperson is that the agency is not and will not reveal how many inspectors total have tested positive for the virus. The spokesperson cited patient privacy laws — HIPPA — as the reason for not releasing how many inspectors out of the USDA’s workforce are positive for the virus.

“FSIS is notifying establishments if an FSIS employee tests positive for COVID-19 and expects establishments to do the same,” the spokesperson said. “Once FSIS is notified, all FSIS personnel at a facility with a confirmed case of COVID-19 will be made aware of the information.”

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