Coronavirus spreads among fruit and vegetable packers in U.S.

FILE PHOTO: Fresh carrots are shown for sale at a grocery store in Del Mar, California, U.S. June 3, 2020. Picture taken June 3, 2020. REUTERS/Mike Blake

From apple packing houses in Washington state to farmworkers in Florida and a California county known as “the world’s salad bowl,” outbreaks of the novel coronavirus are emerging at U.S. fruit and vegetable farms and packing plants.

A rising number of sick farm and packing house workers comes after thousands of meat plant employees contracted the virus and could lead to more labor shortages and a fresh wave of disruption to U.S. food production.

The Trump administration said last month it may extend an executive order to keep meat plants operating to fruit and vegetable producers as well, a sign it is concerned fresh produce could be the next sector hit.

While social distancing can be more easily implemented for workers harvesting fruits and vegetables in fields and working outside may reduce some risks for virus spread, plants that package foods such as apples and carrots resemble the elbow-to-elbow conditions that contributed to outbreaks at U.S. meatpacking plants.

By late May, there were more than 600 cases of COVID-19 among agricultural workers in Yakima County, Washington. Of those, 62% were workers in the apple industry and other packing operations or warehouses, according to a Reuters review of data from county health officials.

With 4,834 known cases as of June 10, the county had the highest per-capita infection rate on the West Coast.

Workers at six fruit packing sites in Yakima County went on strike in May due to concerns they were not being provided adequate protection from COVID-19, Franks said.

The health department in Monterrey County, California, known as “the world’s salad bowl” for its sprawling vegetable farms, reported 247 agricultural workers had tested positive for coronavirus as of June 5, 39% of county’s total cases. Monterrey is one of only a handful of health departments in nearly 30 of the largest U.S. fruit and vegetable producing counties that tracks virus cases among agricultural workers, Reuters found.

In adjacent Kern county, Martin Baca, a 53 year-old forklift operator at carrot grower Grimmway Farms died on April 30, according to his obituary. His family said they believe he contracted the virus at work.