Coronavirus spreads among fruit and vegetable packers, worrying US officials

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NEW YORK / LOS ANGELES / CHICAGO (Reuters) – From apple packing factories in Washington state to farm workers in Florida and a county of California known as the “salad bowl of the world”, new coronavirus is emerging on U.S. fruit and vegetable farms and packing plants.

Fresh carrots are displayed for sale at a grocery store in Del Mar, California, United States June 3, 2020. Photo taken June 3, 2020. REUTERS / Mike Blake

A growing number of sick farm and packing plant workers come after thousands of meat processing plant workers contract the virus and could lead to more labor shortages and a new wave of disruptions in US food production.

The Trump administration said last month it could extend an executive order to keep meat factories in operation for fruit and vegetable producers, a sign it fears fresh produce is the next sector affected.

While social distancing may be more easily implemented for workers who harvest fruits and vegetables in the fields and work outdoors may reduce some risks of the virus spreading, plants that package foods such as apples and carrots look like neck and neck conditions that contributed to the epidemics in the United States. meat packing plants.

At the end of May, there were more than 600 cases of COVID-19 among farm workers in Yakima County, Washington. Of those, 62% were workers in the apple industry and other packaging operations or warehouses, according to a Reuters review of data from county health officials.

With 4,834 known cases as of June 10, the county had the highest per capita infection rate on the west coast.

“The (production) line is moving very quickly. And you work side to side and back to back, ”said Edgar Franks, political director of the local farm workers’ union Familias Unidas por la Justicia in Washington state.

Workers at six fruit packaging sites in Yakima County went on strike in May over concerns that they would not have adequate protection against COVID-19, Franks said.

The Monterey County, Calif., Health department, known as the ‘salad bowl of the world’ for its sprawling vegetable farms, reported that 247 farm workers had tested positive for the coronavirus as of June 5, 39% of total county cases. Monterey is one of the few health departments in nearly 30 of the largest U.S. fruit and vegetable-producing counties to track cases of the virus among farm workers, Reuters found.

In neighboring Kern County, Martin Baca, a 53-year-old forklift operator at carrot producer Grimmway Farms, died on April 30, according to his obituary. His family said they believe he contracted the virus at work.

Grimmway mourned the loss of an employee and supported the family, a spokesperson said. The company said it was not definitively sure where Baca contracted COVID-19.

Grimmway is the largest carrot producer in the world and dominates the market for popular packaged “baby carrots” for snacks.

Juan, a Grimmway employee who asked to be identified only by first name for fear of losing his job, said at one point that so many workers were sick his shift was reduced to a third of the workers needed .

“They made a few announcements to stay six feet apart, but that’s basically impossible when you’re loading boxes on the same pallet,” said Juan, who himself tested positive for the. coronavirus although he has not shown any symptoms. “Obviously, you will be close to your colleagues. “

Grimmway declined to say how many workers had tested positive for the virus and said he had not seen any problems with absenteeism. When a worker becomes ill, the company talks to everyone working on that particular shift or department and offers company-funded COVID testing, Grimmway said in a statement.

Carrot sales in U.S. stores were up 22% from a year ago in the 13 weeks to May 30, according to Nielsen data, as Americans bought almost all of their food in supermarkets with restaurants closed during coronavirus closures.

“GET AHEAD”

On May 19, the US Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration said the government could use the Defense Production Act to keep fruit and vegetable lines moving. The law would provide companies with some liability protection if workers fall ill.

An FDA spokesperson said the law could be used “to protect the food supply and prevent serious food shortages.”

US Senator Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat from Michigan, said in an interview with Reuters that farm workers face increased risks as fruits like apples and cherries enter harvest season.

Stabenow, a leading member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, introduced a law on May 27 that would provide businesses with grants and loans to upgrade machinery and purchase personal protective equipment, fund COVID-19 testing, and cleaning of facilities.

“You can get ahead, which has not happened in the case of meat packaging,” she said. “The best way to protect our supply chain is to keep workers safe. “

Meanwhile, coronavirus cases near the tomato crop in Immokalee, Florida are also on the rise. The spread of the coronavirus among Florida farm workers has significant implications for national food production, as many farm workers travel north during the post-harvest summer through Georgia, the Carolinas and into the northeast.

The Florida Department of Agriculture is predicting more outbreaks on the farm by partnering with county health departments, hotels for quarantined housing, and worker training.

Lupe Gonzalo, a farm worker from Immokalee, said many workers cannot afford to take time off work, which means many cases among farm workers go undetected.

“A lot of workers hide their symptoms, or say it’s just a cold or if they have a fever, just say it’s too hot outside,” potentially risking more infection, she said. .

Reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York, Kristina Cooke in Los Angeles and Christopher Walljasper in Chicago; Additional reports by Tom Polansek and Andy Sullivan; Editing by Caroline Stauffer and Edward Tobin

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