If you're active on social media (or even if you're not), you've likely seen the scores of companies posting thank yous to processing facility workers, salmon farmers, truckers and others on the front line of seafood production.
There's no question that these workers deserve thanks, praise and respect. But while I'm sure companies truly feel the gratitude they are expressing, hashtags and memes have their limits, and are no replacement for much more stringent health and safety measures.
The seafood industry experienced its first major covid-19 hit last week, when Chilean salmon processor Blumar reported an outbreak among five workers at its Talcahuano plant. Salmon farming and fisheries group Camanchaca reported its first outbreak over the weekend.
Blumar and Camanchaca's outbreaks did not come from any failure on the companies' part. In fact, Chilean salmon companies have been among the more proactive in putting stringent controls in place, including the spacing out of workers and temperature tests. Blumar put 250 workers on quarantine, dramatically reducing its production capabilities. As of today, the Chilean salmon industry is operating at an estimated 50 percent of its capacity.
Trouble is, even that wasn't enough.
Though no companies have reported (at least publicly) Covid-19 infections at processing plants outside of Chile, that will change. Remember: Chilean salmon plants have all the same certifications and general food processing protocols as every other facility around the world that's shipping to Western, European or Asian markets.
The outbreaks in Chile shouldn't be what makes the industry shutter, though. A cascade of protein processing companies -- with theoretically far more money to invest in worker safety -- have either shut down or curbed operations because of Covid-19 outbreaks, including meat, poultry and pork processing giants JBS, Smithfield, Perdue Farms, Sanderson Farms, Oymel and more.
Most recently, poultry and meat giant Tyson Foods, whose facilities are among the most sophisticated in the world, suspended processing at a pork plant in Iowa after over two dozen workers tested positive at the facility.
Though it comes after the fact, Tyson Foods CEO Noel White outlined some of the new policies put in place that should be standard practice to the seafood industry: the company is taking the temperature of all workers entering its facilities, pushing federal agencies for personal protective equipment for its staff, spacing out workers on the production floor, erecting dividers at work stations and even setting up tents for outdoor break rooms. The jury is still out as to whether that will curb the spread, but it certainly is a step forward.
The moves aren't simply about personal health and safety. They are also about social license. Stricter protocols and transparency about them gives workers and their families the assurance they need and deserve right now.
It's not lost on processing plant employees that while they are being asked to work on the front lines, others -- from the corner office to junior sales associates fresh out of school -- are safely in lockdown.
"Staying at home is a privilege. Social distancing is a privilege," commentator Charles Blow wrote in the New York Times. "The people who can’t must make terrible choices: Stay home and risk starvation or go to work and risk contagion."
Workers at a Georgia facility owned by pork and poultry giant Perdue walked out and staged a protest asking for safer working conditions, hazard pay and sick leave after workers complained about being exposed to the virus.
Not all workers have publicly complained. Some have simply not shown up. Sanderson Farms, which reported its first case of the coronavirus on March 23 without any significant increase in safety procedures, tellingly just announced a $1 per hour bonus for its workers through June 26.
Though the seafood industry, like the rest of the world, is heading for rough economic waters, the sector needs to recognize the patterns, invest and react swiftly. Some have; I'm willing to bet not enough.
As an essential service -- perhaps the most essential service after the medical community -- there's a huge burden on seafood companies to keep supply moving. And that won't happen without healthy people in those plants.
Think you're doing enough to protect your workers? Do more.