The University of Colorado Law School on Aug. 25 hosted a discussion, “The Roles and Rights of Essential Food System Workers During COVID-19,” as part of its monthly Colorado Law Talks series.
The webinar featured Alexia Brunet Marks, associate professor at CU Law, who talked about the high rates of COVID-19 infection among food system workers and the domino effect it has had on the food supply chain. She also discussed her policy work as part of Project Protect Food System Workers, a group of immigrants, farmers, workers, scholars, activists and unions working to ensure food industry worker protections amid the pandemic.
The presentation opened with a photo of a familiar scene: the empty shelves of King Soopers when COVID-19 first hit Colorado. “Can each of you think back to those early days of the pandemic … and then think about those empty shelves. Did you stop to think that that was caused by COVID sweeping across meatpacking plants and farm fields?” Brunet Marks asked the audience.
Brunet Marks, whose multidisciplinary background includes law, agricultural economics and international trade, retraced the chain of events that led to sold-out supplies at supermarkets. While many industries shut down, President Trump ordered meat processing facilities to stay open. Food supply workers were deemed essential under Colorado’s executive order and continued to work in unsafe conditions, leading many to fall ill.
Production at some facilities, including meatpacking plants in Colorado, slowed or stopped due to absenteeism or shut-downs by public health officials. Farm animals kept growing while processing plants were at reduced capacity, and pig farmers had to euthanize many animals due to a backlog in hogs, Brunet Marks said.
Meanwhile, demand changed as people went to restaurants less and grocery stores more, according to Brunet Marks, but food processing systems can’t be reoriented quickly from wholesale to retail production. “Grocery stores can anticipate and plan for peaks in demand, such as days around Thanksgiving and Christmas and even regional disruptions and hurricanes,” Brunet Marks said. “But not these types of global shocks.”