Meat processors are upset with USDA’s latest mask order

A recent mask requirement from the USDA has meat processors concerned.

USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service Notice 34-21 says meat and poultry plants that use federal inspectors must require their employees or contractors to wear masks when inspectors are present if the plant is in an area of “substantial” or “high” COVID-19 transmission.  The notice says USDA does not have the authority to directly abate hazardous conditions at private establishments, but the agency can keep its inspectors away from the plant if employees don’t wear masks.

Lindsey Fox is a co-owner and fourth-generation producer at Nolechek’s Meats in Thorp, Wisconsin.  She tells Brownfield when the state’s COVID guidelines ended, they decided mask use would be an individual decision, but then USDA came out with the new notice.  “Last week, the addendum came out and the updated notice that as of Wednesday the 25th, they would suspend our federal market inspection if we did not put masks on in front of our inspector in charge.”

Fox tells Brownfield the frustrating part is the new mask order is not being equally enforced.  She has discussed the issue with other meatpacking plants and learned that not everyone is expected to follow the same guideline.  “It’s just really hard when you see that and you aren’t able to then do anything about it, and you have your market inspection withheld when you’ve not done anything egregious to have a food safety concern that would lead to something like that.”

Fox says masks were not required over the past year and a half, and for good reason, because there are sanitary issues with using one.  “It’s impossible to wear a mask in regard to food safety and hygiene practices on the kill floor, and even in production, it’s a concern just with people putting masks on and are they sanitizing properly and are they touching them, so for us, it’s just a really slippery slope.” Fox says her appeal of the mask mandate to USDA was quickly denied, and she’s wondering if she can file an appeal above USDA.

Fox is also concerned about the precedent set by Tyson, which recently announced they would require all their employees to be vaccinated as of November 1st.  “When something like that comes down, it really makes you wonder is that going to be next at a federal level, and for us, we can’t require our team members to do something like that.  We can’t ask that of them if it goes against their beliefs.”

Chris Young is the Executive Director of the American Association of Meat Processors.  He tells Brownfield many members are concerned about the mask mandate, especially the smaller slaughter facilities.  “This mandate leaves no leeway.  No face shields, no nothing.  That makes it a difficult situation in these small facilities that have small slaughter floors where the temperature this time of year is 90 degrees plus and you’re working on an animal that’s 101 degrees, and then you’re spraying it with water that’s 180 degrees and if you’re trying to be masked up, it’s becoming saturated with water and other things from the kill floor and it just makes it very difficult to be able to breathe in a mask like that or even to keep a mask clean.”

Young says the no-compromise stand by FSIS does not take into consideration the worker’s health and the site’s working conditions, and that’s a huge issue.  “If you’re a person with asthma or breathing issues or any other type of condition where wearing a mask, and especially in those type of conditions in on a slaughter floor, there’s just no leeway.  There’s no, as I was told, there’s no room for compromise.”

And Young says the no exceptions mask order has hurt a meat processing industry already struggling to hire enough employees.  “They’re concerned for their employee’s health.  They’re concerned they’re going to have employees walking off the job, and some have had employees walk off the job because it’s a health risk to them.”

Young is not expecting major supply chain problems because of the order.  “I don’t think we’re going to see huge amounts of backlog or anything like that because the majority of our members aren’t the big guys that are producing the majority of the protein that the U.S. eats, but guys are very prevalent in their own communities.  We’re seeing issues, you know, that are going to begin to arise with local farmers that are bringing their animals in to be processed.”

Young says last year, processors had the opportunity to work with their inspection personnel and decide if masks, shields, plastic barriers, or other measures were appropriate.  He says the first new mask order came out August 4th, but the August 20th update put teeth in the mandate by forcing processors to comply or lose their federal meat and poultry inspections. 

USDA’s authority is in question.  Fox says, “It’s really hard to understand where they’re coming from when there’s no legal standing in any of this.”  Young tells Brownfield they are currently looking into whether USDA has the authority to do what they are doing.  Another person who questions USDA’s authority to issue mask orders is Wisconsin Congressman Tom Tiffany (R-7).  Tiffany tells Brownfield, “Yeah, I don’t believe they have the authority, but that’s certainly something that we’re going to check into.”

Tiffany says the USDA’s inspectors should not need this mandatory mask order for meat and poultry plant employees.  “This is really very simple.  If there is a federal employee who needs to go into these plants, they should just get vaccinated and/or wear a mask and they will be protected.”

And Tiffany says people should take the precautions they are comfortable with and not force this on everyone else.

Tiffany calls this another debacle of the Biden administration which will, “continue to jam mandates down people’s throats here in America.”  He says mask mandates might lead to the federal government imposing a vaccine mandate, which he strongly opposes.

Tiffany says the USDA mandate hurts the entire agriculture sector.  “Think about the ripple effect.  It’s going to drive up the cost of meat.  Inflation is bad enough the way it is.  This is going to harm farmers who do business with these meatpacking plants.  Those farmers are not going to have a place to send their animals.”

Tiffany tells Brownfield he plans to meet with affected processors and dig into the legality of USDA’s mandate.  He has already sent a letter to Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack asking about the recent FSIS notice.

Young says nearly 30 states have meat inspection programs that are equivalent to the federal inspection program, and he knows of one processor that is having state inspectors handle their in and out-of-state bound products. 

Wisconsin is one of the states with a comparable inspection program. Leeann Duwe with the state’s Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection tells Brownfield, “DATCP has the authority to issue a similar directive but has no plans to implement it at this time. We are monitoring the situation and will coordinate with meat establishment personnel for steps to help reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection.”

Young says several local processors have suspended inspection programs and gone back to only doing custom processing and returning the packaged meat to the farmer, but that meat cannot be sold to the public since it was not inspected.

Lindsey Fox from Nolechek Meats discusses the latest USDA FSIS mask order with Brownfield’s Larry Lee
Executive Director Chris Young with the American Association of Meat Processors discusses the USDA FSIS maks order with Brownfield’s Larry Lee
Congressman Tom Tiffany (R-WI 7) discusses the USDA FSIS mask order and the importance of local processors with Brownfield’s Larry Lee

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