As Alaska salmon processors head into the fishing season hopeful of dodging the perils of the pandemic, a new report on the meat and poultry industries paints a portrait of a problem-filled road ahead.
The examination coming out of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine (CEBM) at England’s Oxford Univerisity seeks to explain “the high rate of Sars-CoV-2 transmission in meat and poultry facilities,” and identifies three key factors in play:
- The working environment in these facilities is favorable to SARS-CoV-2 persistence (metallic surfaces, low temperatures and relative humidity).
- The working environment may help SARS-CoV-2 transmission (crowded working places, shared transportation, production of aerosols, droplets, fomites).
- A vulnerable, low-paid workforce may be under pressure to keep working despite having symptoms of COVID-19.
All of those factors apply equally to fish processing plants in Alaska. None of those plants are, as of yet, in full swing, but already processing-related COVID-19 cases have shown up in Cordova, Bristol Bay and on the Kenai Peninsula.
Processors have been quick to respond. COVID-19 sufferers appear to have been quickly identified and quarantined.
As Ocean Beauty Seafoods CEO Mark Palmer explained the situation in an interview with Cordova’s KLAM radio, it was disappointing that a worker preparing the plant there was diagnosed with the disease, but “our testing procedures caught this person.”
The Seattle-based company has – like other Alaska processors – committed to testing employees before shipping them north and again upon their arrival in the 49th state.
“When COVID first started to come on the radar screen, one of the things that I felt confident in is that the disciplines we have in place as a company to control listeria” would prepare employees for maintaining hygienic environments in the companies five Alaska processing plants.
Common and uncommon pathogens
Listeria is a common bacterial problem in smoked-fish operations. The bacteria can enter plants in various ways – including on boxes – and survive there. Employees are warned it can stick to hands, gloves, clothing and footwear, and thus be spread throughout a processing plant if workers are not careful.
Handwashing is stressed for employees who touch any possibly contaminated surface, including their faces.
“From a mindset standpoint,” Palmer said, Ocean Beauty employees were conditioned to deal with keeping pathogens out of the plant, and “we were as active as we could possibly be in looking for testing opportunities.”
Unlike listeria, COVID-19 is a wholly new pathogen, and microbiologists at this point aren’t exactly sure of how it spreads. Respiratory droplets are thought to be the main source of infection, but questions have been raised about aerosols and contact spread from so-called “fomites,” objects which become contaminated when droplets fall on them.
Ocean Beauty’s goal, Palmer said, is to test everyone and never send someone to Alaska who is infected, and then back that up with a second test on-site in the 49th state.
“I can’t emphasize enough that we thought this was the highest standard we could come up with,” he said. “We dedicated a lot of funds.”
So far, the program appears to have worked for keeping the SARS-CoV-2 virus from jumping from processing plants, which are this year being run as employee concentration camps, to the communities in which those plants are located.
Whether company efforts will be able to avoid the spread within the facilities themselves over the course of the summer remains to be seen. The record elsewhere has not been good.
The Pacific Seafoods plant in Warrenton, Ore., was forced to close earlier this month after a COVID-19 outbreak, and The Astorian newspaper noted it was the “second seafood processor on the North Coast with an outbreak.”
Employees of Seattle-based Trident Seafoods, the nation’s largest seafood processor, have been stricken with COVID-19 in Washington state, Cordova and Bristol Bay, but the Alaska cases – to date – have been isolated affairs.
The CEBM report suggests that no matter what precautions processors take, they will need a fair bit of luck to get through the June-July salmon season without a major COVID-19 outbreak.
“Our analysis revealed the following broad themes,” the team of scientists from English and Canadian research institutions observed:
- “A high-risk industry for COVID-19 spread. Meat packing plants, abattoirs and slaughterhouses were depicted as major sources of local outbreaks, and sometimes as a key source of a national upsurge in cases when the disease was otherwise under control. The largest reported cluster in our sample was 1500 cases linked to a single meat-packing plant in Alberta, Canada. A short article from the US Food and Environment Reporting Network linked to a regularly-updated interactive map of the United States showing – when accessed on 15th May 2020 – 213 separate outbreaks (9 farms and the remainder meat-packing plants) and 15,689 cases of COVID-19. In one US factory, 58 percent of workers tested positive for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2).
- Business pressures. The meat sector appears to have been under intense competitive pressure for years, with small plants tending to close and be replaced by very large plants owned by vast international companies employing thousands of workers to achieve economies of scale. It was described as lacking the resilience to withstand an external shock.
The latter bullet-points is a near-perfect description of an Alaska seafood industry now controlled by a handful of companies busy consolidating in an effort to survive in a cutthroat marketplace.
On Friday, Ocean Beauty and Petersburg’s Icicle Seafoods announced a merger that adds to the empire of Canada-based Cooke Seafoods, which built its business farming fish in Chile, Scotland, Scotland, Uruguay and Spain before buying Icicle in 2016.
In a media statement, Cooke described the deal as a “change…designed to grow the value of the Alaska seafood resource in a way that benefits the company’s customers, employees, and fisherman partners.”
The deal will increase the number of Cooke Alaska plants to 10. They are being rebranded as OBS Smoked & Distribution, LLC. Cooke said the new entity will be owned 50-50 by Icicle and Ocean Beauty, the latter controlled by the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation and a handful of private investors.
As with most other major Alaska seafood processors, Cooke runs a largely seasonal business which requires it to import large numbers of works from the Lower 48 and other countries to staff its processing plants in Alaska during the short, summer salmon season.
Alaska seafood processing jobs hit a low of a few thousand every December, according to the Alaska Department of Labor, slowly began a climb to toward 5,000 in the new year and then explode in June and July when peak employment hits 25,000.
The quick decline that follows has those jobs back below 5,000 by the end of September. The well-established import of labor increases COVID-19 risks.
Trident’s Bristol Bay plant in North Naknek “employs more than 700 seasonal workers and supports an independently owned harvesting fleet of more than 300 small driftnet vessels and 150 setnet operations,” the company says.
Like the processing plant employees, most of the driftnet skippers and crew plus a good share of the setnet fishermen descend on the Bay from elsewhere. Processing plant workers putting in long days in closed spaces are, however, thought to be the most in danger from SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
The CEBM reported described them as a “vulnerable workforce,” noting that industry descriptions detail “how meat workers are typically immigrants from several countries (e.g. Filipinos, Africans and Mexicans in the USA and Canada; Romanians and Bosnians in Germany; Filipinos, Africans, Romanians and Bulgarians in Ireland), sometimes with undocumented or uncertain citizenship status, rarely fluent in the local language and with limited health literacy and little or no understanding of their employment rights. They would have feared losing their jobs, and so may have accepted low pay and poor conditions without protest. For example:
“‘Iowa, an overwhelmingly white state, has long had a complicated relationship with meatpacking plants. While the industry is an engine of the state’s economy and the country’s food supply, it also employs many immigrants, who have faced periodic raids to enforce immigration laws. Even with union representation, immigrants at the plant say they are afraid to raise concerns about working conditions.’ – New York Times, 10th May 2020″
Alaska is much like Iowa sans the periodic raids. Many of the processing plant workers here are foreign workers on what are called H-2B visas. Lawmakers from seafood states, among them Republicans Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, have for months been lobbying the Trump administration to continue and expand the H-2B program despite the global pandemic.
Few concerns have been expressed in Alaska about the risk of COVID-19 to immigrant laborers, but much concern has been raised about the risk of COVID-19 blowing up in a rural Alaska village.
Whether villages can be protected if an outbreak begins in a fish processing plant and whether processing can continue in such a case, only time will tell. Though some villages have pushed for a salmon-season shutdown – a move the administration of Gov. Mike Dunleavy has resisted – based on the idea that it is the safest thing to do in the short term, the decision on what policy is best is not clearcut.
Salmon processing is a significant part of many local economies in Alaska, and without it all that remains to sustain villages is public money, be it in the form of a limited number state or federal jobs and public aid of various sorts.