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USDA Updates Mask Requirements for Producers

By: Sydney Sheffield 

The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) announced it will require official meat and poultry establishments, egg product plants, and all other facilities where FSIS provides official inspection services to follow current Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for mask use. If failure to comply, USDA will withdraw all Inspection Program Personnel (IPP) from the organization. 

“Establishments must require their employees or contractors to wear masks when IPP are present if the establishment is located in a county with "substantial" or "high" community transmission of COVID-19,” the notice states. During 2020, at least four federal food inspectors died of COVID-19, and at one point, roughly 197 field employees were absent from work, and another 120 were under self-quarantine.

The notice has received backlash from those in the industry. Chris Young, Executive Director of the American Association of Meat Producers (AAMP) told Brownfield Ag News, “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 also stated in a letter to AAMP members that the organization is having conversations with USDA, the Biden Administration, and members of Congress to try to reverse the regulations. He also suggested many members are willing to give up the FSIS inspection services simply to not comply with the notice. 

Representative Tom Tiffany (R-WI) sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on the matter, stating “FSIS should provide a transparent and detailed data-based justification for this arbitrary order, give affected processors a meaningful seat at the table to review that justification, and provide businesses and the public with an extended opportunity to provide robust comment and feedback before such reckless and draconian actions are imposed.” 

In Wisconsin, where Tiffany represents, Nolechek’s Meat was withheld from inspection due to refusal to follow the mask mandate. The company appealed the decision to the USDA, which was also denied within 12 hours. In the denial letter from USDA, Philip Bronstein, FSIS Assistant Administrator, clearly stated the Nolechek’s Meat is located in an area of “high” community COVID-19 transmission, and for that reason, the appeal was denied. Without inspection, the company is not able to sell meat in wholesale markets beyond Wisconsin. 

Following the notice, six Republican senators have sent a letter to the USDA requesting more information on the decision to mandate masks. Read the letter here