When Australian canned food producer SPC announced in early August it was introducing mandatory Covid-19 vaccinations for all members of staff, it caused an uproar. Union representatives pushed back against the ‘no jab, no job’ policy and SPC received threats on social media its products in stores would be tampered with unless it reversed its stance.

In a statement sent to Just Food at the time, SPC said: “A fully-vaccinated workforce will ensure that SPC can continue to deliver an essential service while helping Australia return to an open economy in line with the Prime Minister’s four-point plan out of Covid.”

It’s not the only food manufacturer to go down this route. August also saw two US majors, Tyson Foods and Kraft Heinz, announce vaccine policies.

Tyson said it was also introducing mandatory vaccinations. Unless employees have religious or medical exemptions, staff at US office locations will be required to be fully vaccinated by 1 October and all other employees by 1 November.

On 3 August, when Tyson announced its vaccine mandate, Donnie King, the company’s president and CEO, said the meat giant “did not take this decision lightly”.

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He added: “We have spent months encouraging our team members to get vaccinated – today, under half of our team members are. We take this step today because nothing is more important than our team members’ health and safety, and we thank them for the work they do, every day, to help us feed this country, and our world.”

Kraft Heinz announced its US office-based staff will have to be fully vaccinated before they return to the office in January, unless they have medical or religious exemptions.

A spokesperson for Kraft Heinz said the prevalence of the Delta variant of Covid-19, as well as the approval last week by the US Food and Drug Administration of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, had fed into the company’s decision.

“The spread of the Delta variant, FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine and the fact that our world headquarters is located on a shared building with 80 floors also has led to a decision requiring all office-based employees to be fully vaccinated prior to returning to the office in January 2022, unless they have obtained an appropriate health or religious accommodation,” the spokesperson said. “We decided to take this step after listening to employees that a fully vaccinated workplace would increase their confidence in returning to the office.”

Given Covid-19 outbreaks and deaths have been recorded in food processing and packing plants around the world, to some observers it may seem like a sensible precaution to take. However, can companies force employees to be vaccinated against the virus and what’s the potential fallout from putting in place policies like these?

Vaccinations are a sensitive topic and it’s something many of the world’s biggest food groups steadfastly refuse to discuss. When contacted by Just Food to outline their own vaccine policies for Covid-19 many failed to respond and many others declined to comment.

The response from one of the world’s biggest food groups was typical. “It’s not something we particularly want to comment on, but we don’t have any policy that requires employees to be vaccinated,” said a spokesperson for the group, which asked to remain anonymous.

Judging by the responses of those food companies who did respond it’s clear they are maintaining a watching brief on the pandemic, which continues to evolve as dangerous new variants spread rapidly across the globe. For instance, Mondelez International is not currently requiring vaccinations for its employees, but it is closely monitoring the situation to see how things pan out over the coming months.

“It is our top priority to protect the health and safety of our employees, partners and customers in close collaboration with global institutions and local health authorities,” the company said in a statement. “We feel strongly that we must all do our part to end this global pandemic and medical experts are clear – vaccines work. We hope and expect that our colleagues will be vaccinated when the opportunity presents itself. Some colleagues will have health conditions, religious beliefs and other reasons that prevent them from taking the vaccine. We understand and support those colleagues.”

It’s a similar scenario at General Mills. “Vaccination is highly encouraged as an important way to protect employee health, and the health of our community,” a spokesperson for the Old El Paso and Nature Valley owner says. “At this time, we are not mandating or centrally tracking vaccinations. We will follow all applicable government requirements and mandates in managing the reopening of offices. Building occupancy is directly related to the state of the pandemic in each area, and we employ safety protocols to protect our employees.”

UK-based Associated British Foods, a spokesperson says all of the companies within the wider group are following government guidelines in England and the devolved regions. “But the reality is that the business operates on a highly decentralised model which gives decision-making autonomy to the many businesses and means there are no group wide policies of this nature, including on vaccinations,” adds the spokesperson.

And at Bakkavor, which saw one of its salad factories in Kent hit hard by the virus last year, the company says it does “not have any policy or requirement in place that people have to be fully vaccinated”.

The reluctance of some of the world’s biggest food groups to engage in a conversation about vaccination policies underscores how sensitive this topic is – and how much of a political hot potato this topic could become over the coming months.

Some food unions globally have already made their stance on the issue clear. In Australia, the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union (AMWU) strongly opposed the introduction of mandatory vaccinations by SPC.

A spokesperson for the union says it follows all public health orders and advice and that “decisions on public health orders are made by health and medical experts and are not made lightly. Decisions on mandating vaccination should not be made by employers and HR managers, they should be made by health professionals”.

The AMWU spokesperson adds: “Mandating vaccinations is creating vaccine hesitancy and workplace conflict. Employers are being encouraged to support workers to be vaccinated instead of taking punitive action.”

The spokesperson also claims SPC workers are frustrated they weren’t consulted on what is an important health and safety issue. “Decisions of this nature require – under law – worker input,” says the spokesperson.

In the UK, a spokesperson for Unite says the union believes all Covid-19 vaccination and Covid-19 testing regimes should be voluntary and not mandatory.

“Compulsion is a very bad way to achieve a high-level response, will lead to increased resistance, a worsening staffing crisis and is embroiled with issues such as equalities, human rights, privacy, and ethical breaches,” adds the spokesperson. “We obviously want vaccine take up to be as high as possible and employers should be doing all they can to encourage staff to have the vaccine, including making sure they can have time off to get it.”

When Tyson announced its new policy, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which represents 250,000 meatpacking and food processing workers, including 24,000 Tyson employees across the country, raised concerns. On Friday, it was announced Tyson had struck a deal with unions, receiving the backing of two, the UFCW and the affiliated Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, that represent more than 80% of its US staff who are unionised.

After the talks with unions, Tyson is to provide more benefits to fully vaccinated staff. One new benefit for employees will see workers start earning up to 20 hours of paid sick leave a year from 1 January. The company is also giving double-jabbed workers US$200 as “a thank you”, it said. Last week, it emerged Tyson is offering vaccinated staff working in its domestic chicken factories the chance to win cash prizes. At the time of writing, more than 75% of Tyson’s US workforce have had at least one dose of the jab, the company says.

Employment laws differ from country to country and, in some countries, there is a grey area around whether or not mandatory vaccinations can be introduced. For instance, according to law firm Baker McKenzie, in the US private employers can legally mandate vaccines under federal law, subject to some legal considerations. However, state law differs by jurisdiction and, while some US states have authorised vaccine mandates, some have banned them.

Generally speaking, in most countries around the world, companies cannot legally implement mandatory vaccinations for employees, although there are some exceptions – in the UK MPs have approved compulsory vaccinations for care home workers, for example. Even in countries like Australia, which has implemented a ‘zero Covid’ public-health policy, employers cannot force workers to be fully vaccinated. Whether or not that situation changes in the future, as more virulent strains of the virus flare-up in different geographic territories, remains to be seen.

However, one food analyst points out the inability to force employees to get vaccinated could inadvertently have significant repercussions for workers further down the line.

“For some companies it could accelerate the move toward automation if a requirement is not legally allowed,” says the analyst. “We know companies are already considering implementing further automation. Yes, they understand the importance of workers, but de-risking operations is important too.”

So, while at the moment the number of food groups introducing mandatory vaccinations may be low, it’s possible that in the future the ‘no jab, no job’ policy might be more widely rolled out and those workers who refuse to get ‘jabbed’ could find themselves one day replaced by a robot.