Report: Health Officers Pressured to Keep Meat Plant Open

Jan. 18, 2021
A meat processing plant in northern Illinois reopened and stayed open despite numerous COVID infections, under pressure from USDA officials and others.

A meat processing plant in northern Illinois reopened and stayed open despite numerous COVID infections, under pressure from USDA officials and others, according to an investigative report.

The plant in Rochelle, Ill., about 70 miles west of Chicago, belongs to Rochelle Foods, a unit of Hormel Foods that makes bacon and other processed meats. At least 137 COVID-19 infections have been reported there.

The situation led Ogle County health authorities to shut down the plant for a week at the end of last April, with Hormel’s assent. But during the shutdown, the head of the county’s health department was summoned to a conference call and told by political appointees from the USDA that he had no authority to keep the plant closed, according to a report from the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting co-published in USA Today.

The report claims that there was a second wave of infections this fall that went unreported to anyone except health authorities. From mid-October to mid-November, the positivity rate in Ogle County rose from 8% to 20%, and COVID deaths since October have totaled 53 – compared with six in the preceding eight months.

Health officials had a contentious relationship with Hormel during that time, the article says. Company officials tried to blame the second COVID outbreak on “community spread,” noting that many of its employees are Latino and Burmese immigrants withlarge households.

The company went along with the April closure, but requested, successfully, that the county health department suppress a press release announcing COVID testing for workers at Rochelle Foods, fearing bad publicity. Workers subsequently complained to the health department that coworkers were being allowed (but not forced) to work while sick.

County health officials had to muddle through mixed messages from state and federal authorities on whether they could close the plant again if needed, even against Hormel’s wishes. The Illinois Department of Public Health finally said that this was possible – if local authorities could link five positive cases that were linked to someone in the plant. They were unable to develop such a link.

The USA Today article said Hormel is showing greater cooperation and has instituted in-house testing and safety procedures. However, the county health department expressed concerns that the company is “not reporting cases in a timely fashion” and “potentially skewing information.”

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