Meat Companies Hold Back on COVID Reporting

May 26, 2020
Officials of meat processing companies, and local authorities where major meat plants are located, have been dragging their feet about reporting cases of COVID-19.

Officials of meat processing companies, and local authorities where major meat plants are located, have been dragging their feet about reporting cases of COVID-19 among their workforces, the New York Times reports.

Smithfield and other major meat companies have been declining to furnish detailed information on the number of infections at individual plants, the Times reports. The situation occurs as meat plants have emerged as among the biggest hotspots of coronavirus infection, due primarily to crowded working conditions. As of May 22, more than 17,000 meat and poultry workers have contracted COVID-19 and more than 60 have died, according to the Food & Environment Reporting Network.

The Times looked at emails and other communications among public health officials and other authorities from meat plant locations. Some revealed the dilemma they were in, because the plants are often the largest employers in their municipalities and because the officials were in many cases unsure of their authority.

“Some local health directors from the counties where there are processing plants expressed some concerns about how that [reporting on case totals] may negatively impact the relationship they have built with the management of the companies,” Melissa Packer, assistant health director for Robeson County, N.C., where a Smithfield pork plant is located, told the Times.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts announced earlier this month that the state would not provide COVID case totals for individual plants without the companies’ consent.

For their part, the companies argue that releasing data on testing in their plants but not in the broader area would distort the results and make them into villains.

The one reliable way to slow the spread of infection in meat plants is to keep workers apart. But most meat companies can’t do that without slowing down production, and the meat supply chain is already starting to break down, with farmers unable to offload slaughter-ready animals while shortages occur in retail stores.

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