In watching the growing number of outbreaks of coronavirus in the meat sector, I worried that the seafood industry was headed for the very same fate without much more aggressive precautionary measures.
I was wrong on three fronts. First, I underestimated just how poorly the meat and poultry sectors would handle their problems.
Second, I underestimated how soon after seafood would begin to see its own infections pile up.
Three, I wasn't worried enough.
Since that time, there have been dozens of coronavirus cases at seafood plants. Chilean salmon processors Blumar and Camanchaca both reported outbreaks, as did Norwegian salmon group Leroy Seafood. In the United States, High Liner Foods, Trident Seafoods, Ocean Beauty Seafoods, Pacific Seafood, Bornstein Seafoods, and Blue Harvest Fisheries have all had employees experience cases. The most shocking was this week's announcement of an outbreak of Covid-19 at a cannery owned by Thai Union in Ghana.
According to public officials and unions, a worker at the plant went on to infect 533 people.
Thai Union's decision to not publicly announce an April 17 finding of the coronavirus to shareholders, customers, the media and suppliers is puzzling.
Though the company is still chasing the outbreak, and has been working with Ghanaian health authorities to track and trace, the proverbial cow is out of the barn. If indeed the outbreak was incubated at the plant, it now accounts for 11 percent of all cases in the country, the Ghanaian government says.
Could the company have done better to prevent it? Maybe, maybe not. This is a tricky bug. But the fact that the outbreak only became public a month later certainly was within Thai Union's power.
Let's not dwell on that mistake; no doubt there are plenty of other seafood companies that haven't reported their cases, or hoped to sweep them under the rug. But that can have devastating consequences.
One prominent seafood executive wrote me a mail following our reporting of the coronavirus cases at one processing plant asking if I knew who the workers infected were and what shift they were on. He was unable to get information from the company. Why did he care? He was in that very plant the week prior.
The mail came in a week after we reported the outbreak, which shows that the executive had been going about his life with little concern that he may have been exposed, potentially spreading the infection to family, retail workers or other company employees.
Look, this is not a shameful infection. It's not a flaw in processes. It's simply the way this disease works.
But the more companies try to control the narrative around outbreaks, the more awful this becomes both for the workers in their own companies, the communities they call home, and their reputations.
Of the recent outbreaks of Covid-19 in seafood I listed above, most have been way out in front in reporting the cases and cataloging what they did to address the infections.
That has allowed contacts to be traced quickly, best practices to be shared. Among one of the more heartening things I've heard over the past two months is how companies have actually worked together to identify ways to cooperate or "troubleshoot" processes to protect workers on land and at sea, particularly when facilities are based in the same area, or when multiple workers share a single vessel. It's that kind of pre-competitive thinking that can keep people safe, and keep the seafood supply chain moving.
Businesses tend to be on the conservative spectrum of politics, but they also tend to be pragmatic. Pragmatism means -- or it used to -- precaution, preparation and foresight. Quarterly earnings tell companies a story. So should the science on coronavirus' spread.
Seafood, more than most business sectors, relies on science. Without science, there is no aquaculture. Without science, there are no sustainable fish populations. Without science: no processing equipment, no cold storage, no transportation. You get the idea.
With major seasonal fisheries coming up -- Alaska and Russian salmon and pollock, Peruvian anchovy -- the risks are incredibly high, both for the populations, but also the food supply chain.
The seafood industry is poised to take advantage of the meat and poultry industry's failures -- or it can simply repeat them.