As the approval of a COVID-19 vaccine edges closer in the EU, stakeholders are urging member states to treat the food and drink workforce as a top priority in vaccination plans.
In a joint statement released on Tuesday (15 December), the European Federation of Food, Agriculture and Tourism Trade Unions (EFFAT) and food manufacturers association FoodDrinkEurope have joined forces to call on member states to include all agriculture and food sector workers as a priority group while developing their national vaccination strategies.
As the EU considers the best way to roll out the upcoming COVID-19 vaccine, the European Commission has provided guidelines to member states for developing their vaccination strategies.
It has noted six priority groups including health care workers, the vulnerable and elderly, as well as “essential sectors outside the health sector,” which includes agriculture and food sector workers.
The Commission has urged member states to consider these priority groups, whose importance took centre stage during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Amid concerns for food security, food workers were categorised as ‘essential workers’ in many EU countries during the first wave of the virus, which helped ensure that there was no disruption in the food chains.
However, food security can only be ensured when the health and safety of the workers in the food and drink industry are protected and production can run smoothly, the joint statement warns.
“It is right that health sector workers, the vulnerable and the elderly are top priority for the COVID-19 vaccine. But we want member states to also recognise the need to keep the agri-food workforce healthy to avoid disruptions to food and drink supplies,” William Surman, spokesperson for FoodDrinkEurope, told EURACTIV.
Wiebke Warneck, political secretary food, drink and tobacco at EFFAT, reiterated that “throughout this pandemic, food and drink workers have been deemed essential as they provided Europeans with their daily food, every single day”.
“Now it’s the right time to reward them for the risks taken and recognise their crucial role by considering them as a priority group.’”
Warneck added that at the moment when the national vaccination strategies are being developed, “we stress with our social partners that only healthy workers can feed Europe”.
Across the EU, there are some 4.7 million workers in the food sector.
European agriculture depends to a large extent on migrant workers, many of them undocumented, who make up a significant proportion of those picking fruits and vegetables as well as packing and processing food.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]