Meat groups advocate for essential workers on vaccine priority list

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
Meat industry groups are urging governors across the U.S. to prioritize the COVID-19 vaccination for the men and women who work in the meat and poultry industry, following healthcare workers and those residing in long-term care facilities.

Meat industry groups are urging governors across the U.S. to prioritize the COVID-19 vaccination for the men and women who work in the meat and poultry industry, following healthcare workers and those residing in long-term care facilities.

The North American Meat Institute (Meat Institute), the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), and the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) asked governors to consider workers including inspectors and livestock producers be given very high priority regarding the distribution and administration of COVID-19 vaccines.

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly says her state considers meatpacking plant workers and grocery store employees essential workers, putting them just behind health care workers and nursing home residents for coronavirus vaccines, according to an Associated Press report.

While the first round of vaccines will go to front-line health care workers with a high risk of coronavirus exposure, she said the state will focus on essential workers in the second phase of distributing the vaccine using definitions developed early in the pandemic. 

“Those were ... our first responders, our meatpacking plant workers, grocery store workers and others,” Kelly said.

Earlier this year the Department of Homeland Security identified food manufacturing as a critical infrastructure sector, which included meat and poultry workers and livestock producers. Those people have been on the front lines ensuring Americans have access to safe, nutritious, and affordable food.

Wisconsin food processing plants have been linked to hundreds of COVID-19 cases, including four deaths associated with JBS Packerland (where over 400 workers tested positive) and American Foods Group of Green Bay which was linked to 366 cases. Smithfield Foods in Cudahy has over 100 reported cases. 

In a statement, the groups say packing plants and their producer suppliers faced many challenges in the early stages of the pandemic. However, they say the meat industry is resilient and the supply chain remains intact.

Meat industry groups say packing plants and their producer suppliers faced many challenges in the early stages of the pandemic. However, they say the meat industry is resilient and the supply chain remains intact.

While the groups acknowledge and support the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices' vaccine priority recommendation, they believe meat industry workers and their livestock suppliers addresses an industry that is part of the critical infrastructure and necessary to ensure the animals are harvested and processed.

"Such prioritization would allow the utilization of an existing system to deliver the vaccine to a significant and important part of the workforce," they said.

“The men and women of the meat and poultry industry help keep America’s grocery stores stocked and our farm economy working. They should be highly prioritized for COVID-19 vaccination, following our nation’s brave health care workers," Meat Institute President and CEO Julie Anna Potts said in a release. “The meat and poultry industry was among the first sectors to be challenged with the pandemic, and since March the industry has implemented effective programs and controls to stop the spread of COVID. Our efforts are working, but access to vaccines remains the most critical tool to protect this critical infrastructure workforce.”

RELATED: Meatpacking plants tied to more COVID-19 cases than known before, new business outbreak data shows

Since the spring, meat and poultry companies have implemented health recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration and, often, additional measures. The industry has spent more than $1 billion on procedures and controls to both support and protect employees. These measures include physical adaptations to facilities, personal protective equipment, enhanced sanitation, advanced ventilation systems, extensive testing and contact tracing, enhanced health care services, and more.

Last week, KatieRose McCullough, Ph.D. MPH, Director, Regulatory and Scientific Affairs for the Meat Institute submitted written comments urging CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) to prioritize vaccination for meat and poultry workers during the second phase. 

McCullough said that including meat and poultry workers in second phase will protect meat and poultry workers as critical infrastructure employees whose heroic efforts feed the nation throughout the pandemic, increase health equity as the workforce is highly diverse and includes populations the CDC has also identified as greatly affected by COVID-19, strengthen vaccine distribution in rural communities with limited health care infrastructure, where meat and poultry facilities are major employers and maximize efficiency using existing protocols and procedures that make meat and poultry facilities ideal locations to efficiently distribute vaccines, especially those facilities with medical staff on site.

The groups say critical components of the industry's resilience are the programs and protocols packers implemented in the spring and summer, programs that have proven effective in limiting the spread of the virus even while the curve nationally has been soaring in the opposite direction.

"Those programs and protocols, coupled with the education programs packers will undertake to explain the importance and safety of vaccination, put meatpacking facilities in an ideal position to administer the vaccine to many people in an orderly and efficient fashion," the groups contend.