Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, a member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, announced the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Office of the Inspector General (OIG) is initiating an audit of USDA actions that may have contributed to the spread of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) in meat processing facilities and other agricultural processing facilities. The USDA OIG initiated this audit in response to Bennet’s request for an investigation in August.

“Early in the pandemic, meat processing plants saw some of the highest rates of COVID-19 infections, harming a workforce predominantly comprised of immigrants, refugees, and people of color, and raising serious questions about any federal actions that may have contributed to the spread of the virus in these facilities,” said Bennet. “Hardworking Americans who are serving on the front lines during this crisis deserve answers. I’m glad the USDA Inspector General is making it a priority to get to the bottom of this.” 

In a letter from Inspector General Phyllis K. Fong to Sen. Bennett, the OIG will determine:

  1. How FSIS spent its $33 million in CARES Act funding;
  2. What actions FSIS took to ensure the health and safety of FSIS inspectors working at official establishments;
  3. How FSIS ensured inspections continued at the establishments, including determining whether inspectors were transferred between establishments;
  4. What actions FSIS took to communicate the Federal government’s authority, standards, and expectations with the State Departments of Health;
  5. Whether FSIS had sufficient critical resources to ensure reliable COVID-19 tests, personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer, soap and warm water, workplace dividers, and disinfectant available to inspectors at all establishments;
  6. FSIS’ protocols for when an FSIS or establishment employee tested positive for COVID-19; and
  7. What actions FSIS took following the Executive Order issued on April 28, 2020, that affected outbreaks at meat and poultry processing and other agricultural facilities.

“We are also conducting a pulse survey to obtain information about how FSIS’ frontline inspectors perceive COVID-19 safety conditions in their work environments,” the letter stated.

Deltrick Johnson, deputy counsel in the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General, said the investigation will examine what actions were taken to ensure safety of inspectors working in the plants, whether they had adequate protective equipment and what procedures were followed when an inspector tested positive, according to Bloomberg News.

Sarah Little, a spokeswoman for the North American Meat Institute told Bloomberg that processors to date have spent “more than $1.5 billion in comprehensive protections” against Covid. “The meat and poultry industry is focused on continuing these effective protections” and “ensuring frontline meat and poultry workers are vaccinated as soon as possible,” she said.

Sources: Bloomberg, Sen. Michael Bennett