SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's Department of Agriculture and Food has increased its on-site visits to food producers during the COVID-19 pandemic in an effort to ensure health and safety guidelines are being followed.
"We’ve been out doing site visits at these plants to ensure they are following the guidelines that have been put in place. I have to say these firms are doing an incredible job. Matter of fact, going above and beyond with some of their strategies to prevent more illness," said Rick Beckstrand, the agency's manufactured food regulatory program manager.
The increased inspections come after a pair of Utah County businesses were accused of disregarding health guidelines and having employees with novel coronavirus come to work sick. That led to a spike in cases and a rebuke from Utah County commissioners.
While not naming the businesses, Beckstrand said the agency did shut one of them down for five days so it could be sanitized.
A separate lawsuit has been filed accusing an American Fork business of not taking proper precautions to protect employees against COVID-19.
"When we hear stories about people being asked to work while they’re having symptoms that’s where we immediately focus our attention. Because we want to make sure that’s not happening," Beckstrand said.
Asked if they have been able to prove if that is happening, he replied: "No. We’ve got information that’s it’s kind of hearsay at this point."
Beckstrand told FOX 13 that he believed 98% of the businesses he and other inspectors are visiting are doing very well with health and safety compliance, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some have gotten creative with ways to ensure employee safety. One firm, he said, built plexiglass work areas to keep employees away from each other.
"What we’ve increased are these on-site pop-in visits to these firms to do that assessment of where they’re at, are they taking all the measures that they’re supposed to be taking to prevent more illnesses," Beckstrand told FOX 13. "I’ve done some of those personally and I can tell you the ones I’ve been out to, they’ve got screening stations in place outside the firm before employees can even go in and start to go to work they have to be screened for COVID."
Inside, they all wear personal protective equipment. Beckstrand said he and the inspectors they work with must do the same anytime they go into one of these facilities.
To boost consumer confidence in Utah's food supply, the agency is ramping up its "Utah's Own" initiative to encourage residents to buy from local farmers and ranchers. "Bringing Confidence to the Table" touts the fact that consumers know exactly where their food is coming from and it's safer.
"It’s a really incredible opportunity to connect with local producers," said Caroline Hargraves, a marketing specialist with the agriculture department.
Farmers have been hit by the pandemic with restaurants and other sources they sell produce to closing. Some farmers and ranchers have gotten creative by selling direct-to-consumer.
"Farmers that didn’t previously have an online presence now do and many are even selling online so you can buy directly online and have them shipped to your doorstep," Hargraves said.