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Email Content: Poultry Industry News, Comments and more by Simon M. Shane

The Need to Disclose Incidence Rates of COVID-19 in Packing Plants


It is estimated that close to 15,000 workers in meat packing plants in the U.S. have been diagnosed with COVID-19 with twenty documented deaths, representing a fatality rate of 0.13 percent.  Clearly the actual number of those infected including asymptomatic cases is unknown but is considered to be higher than assessed using current testing protocols and assembled data.  Accurate and representative incidence data is important since many packing plants represent the largest employer in a county and a high proportion of the population in some local areas.  The interaction among plant workers and the community is obviously responsible for the "hot spots" now emerging in rural areas in the Midwest and Southeast.


Some packing companies have been reticent to release figures relating to infection.  This leads to concern among workers where there may in fact not be a major problem. Local health authorities require accurate and timeous data to be able to implement preventive programs and to issue recommendations to the community.


Companies including Smithfield Foods claim that it is not releasing data "out of respect for Smithfield employee's legal privacy".  JBS with a similar justification claims that it is not releasing data "out of respect for the families".  Both these responses are literally hogwash and illustrate a mindset focused on company image and concern over culpability. Not issuing and recognizing rates of infection illustrates self-denial at best or an attempt to blind stakeholders to the realities of their situations.  It is considered interesting that both companies are foreign-owned or controlled, reflecting attitudes and imperatives inconsistent with U.S. principles of democracy and openness. 


In contrast, Tyson Foods has issued press releases relating to outbreaks in plants in Nebraska and Maine and stated, "we will share verified test results with health and government officials, team members and other stakeholders as they become available".  West Liberty Foods in Iowa has regularly released the numbers of positive COVID-19 cases at each of its plants since mid-April.  Dan Waters the General Counsel and VP of West Liberty Foods, commented that "releasing case numbers is important to inform workers and the broader community of their possible risks of exposure to the virus".   He added "what happens at West Liberty Foods has a big impact of the community".  As a lawyer Waters does not regard releasing cases numbers as a violation of privacy, an opinion that would reasonably be shared by an average citizen.  Waters further commented "I prefer to share the facts other than have people not know what's going on, or assume things that are even worse than they actually are".


Both OSHA and FSIS have been reticent in taking a firm stand on both the release of data and the imposition of guidelines. The CDC issued a set of standards and procedures that were somehow suppressed and then watered down. Downgrading directives to suggestions will ultimately prolong COVID outbreaks in specific plants and delay restoration of normalcy.


A major problem of transparency and collection of data to be processed by epidemiologists lies in the patchwork of reporting and failure to establish reliable databases.  This denotes a failure by Federal agencies to assume responsibility and centralize data collection for the benefit of health authorities who must make realistic and practical suggestions. 


Hiding or suppressing incidence data does not help either the plant concerned nor the community exposed nor even the nation.  Given the absence of an effective vaccine it is impossible to plan effective quarantine and isolation programs and to implement effective protection of plant workers without access to data.  Irrespective of Executive Orders, in the absence of a coordinated plan to address COVID-19 infection in the red meat industry, we will continue to stumble along with fluctuating levels of infection, increased mortality and prolonged disruption in the supply chain extending from farm to consumer.

Copyright © 2020 Simon M. Shane