July 30, 2020
Tyson Responds to Outbreak at Meatpacking Plant
Back in May, the Iowa Department of Public Health held a news conference and announced that 221 employees of the Tyson Foods pork processing plant at Columbus Junction had tested positive for coronavirus. That announcement sent a shockwave through the meat supply chain as retailers, already struggling with other COVID-related shortages, wondered if there would be more bad news and, if so, how they would be impacted.
Now, though, it appears that those initial reports fell well short of the reality. The outbreak, according to the Associated Press, was significantly worse than previously reported. The AP is reporting that the real number was more than 500 plant employees known to be infected. This was communicated to Iowa workplace safety regulators during a previous inspection, but it’s not clear who else may have been told or why the discrepancy happened.
Further reporting on this issue revealed that at least a dozen plant workers required hospitalization, and two died. State officials are now under fire for their handling of this case with some consumer watchdog groups saying local officials “mishandled” information, keeping some of it from the public. On top of that, there are some media outlets reporting that a longtime spokesperson at the department was “forced out” after working to fulfill media requests for agency data. This same spokesperson said the talking points drafted by the agency were “embarrassing.”
Further complicating the agency’s current PR situation, critics have said the agency was trying to hide information by charging “thousands of dollars” to have records requests fulfilled. This continued even as outbreaks happened at several other meatpacking plants across Iowa, the top pork-producing state in the nation.
Meanwhile, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds supported pork producers, helping plants find ways to keep production up while workers continued to get sick, and some died. Many applauded Reynolds’ efforts, noting that grocers and other retailers needed the products Iowa pork plants produce. At a subsequent press conference, health department deputy director Sarah Reisetter reported that about 400 workers at a plant in Waterloo tested positive. The actual number turned out to be more than 1,000.
In at least one instance, health department officials reported that the much lower numbers were the result of “officially verified data” they had available at the time saying, later, that “the reporting process has (since) significantly improved.” Some accepted this as a simple recording process error. Others accused the department of a cover-up, attempting to downplay the severity of the outbreak in order to keep the plants open. These critics pushed back at “improved reporting” by pointing out that the department never updated the number of confirmed infections and the Columbus Junction plant.
When questioned about this, a Tyson spokesperson, Gary Mickelson, said the lower numbers announced by the state department of health only reflected the first round of multiple rounds of testing: “Coordinating facility-wide testing and obtaining results is a complex process that takes time…”
To date, the conflicting reports only offered ammunition for critics who believe the company and the local officials were trying to hide the real numbers. Tyson officials and health department people insist this is not the case, and the back-and-forth continues.