A fourth U.S. Department of Agriculture food safety inspector died Wednesday from Covid-19, according to a union official, amid an outbreak of the virus in the nation’s meat processors.
The inspector was located in Dodge City, Kansas, said Paula Schelling, acting national joint council chairperson for food inspection locals for the American Federation of Government Employees. Schelling declined to provide additional details, saying the inspector’s family wants to keep the matter private.
The USDA confirmed the inspector’s death in a statement Thursday without addressing the cause.
“USDA can confirm the passing of an employee,” according to the statement. “The safety and well-being of our employees is our top priority. We thank those working on the front lines of our food supply chain for remaining on the job and for making sure the American people have access to safe food.”
Union officials have criticized the department since April for providing inadequate protection to inspectors as coronavirus swept through the nation’s meatpacking plants. Inspectors in early April were left to buy their own masks. The department now has enough face masks to provide them for all inspectors, said a USDA official.
The virus has spread through meat processors, where employees typically work close together in cramped, cold spaces. USDA inspectors work on the production floor, checking meat for safety. A number of plants closed temporarily because of outbreaks.
President Donald Trump issued an executive order April 28 directing meatpackers to reopen and the USDA announced Friday that 14 processing facilities were reopening. Schelling didn’t provide details on when the deceased inspector contracted the virus.
At least 30 meat workers have died of coronavirus and more than 10,000 have been infected or exposed, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. At least 30 plants have closed at some point in the past two months, the union said May 8.
As of Tuesday, 123 USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service employees were under self-quarantine due to coronavirus exposure and another 171 field employees were absent from work due to a Covid-19 diagnosis, according to a USDA statement earlier in the day.