The Smithfield Foods plant in Tar Heel, N.C., is one of the world’s largest pork processing facilities, employing about 4,500 people and slaughtering roughly 30,000 pigs a day at its peak.
And like more than 100 other meat plants across the United States, the facility has seen a substantial number of coronavirus cases. But the exact number of workers in Tar Heel who have tested positive is anyone’s guess.
Smithfield would not provide any data when asked about the number of illnesses at the plant. Neither would state or local health officials.
“There has been a stigma associated with the virus,” said Teresa Duncan, the director of the health department in Bladen County, where the plant is located. “So we’re trying to protect privacy.”
Along with nursing homes and prisons, meatpacking facilities have proven to be places where the virus spreads rapidly. But as dozens of plants that closed because of outbreaks begin reopening, meat companies’ reluctance to disclose detailed case counts makes it difficult to tell whether the contagion is contained or new cases are emerging even with new safety measures in place. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said there were nearly 5,000 meatpacking workers infected with the virus as of the end of last month. But the nonprofit group Food & Environment Reporting Network estimated last week that the number has climbed to more than 17,000. There have been 66 meatpacking deaths, the group said.
And the outbreaks may be even more extensive.
For weeks, local officials received conflicting signals from state leaders and meatpacking companies about how much information to release, according to internal emails from government health agencies obtained through public records requests by Columbia University’s Brown Institute for Media Innovation and provided to The New York Times. The mixed messages left many workers and their communities in the dark about the extent of the spread in parts of Iowa, Nebraska and Colorado.
The emails also reveal the deference some county officials have shown toward the giant meatpacking companies and how little power they have in pushing the companies to stem outbreaks.
“Bad news spreads way faster than the truth,” said a county health official in Colorado of an outbreak at a Cargill plant, according to notes from a conference call last month. “At this point, we are not doing anything to cast them in a bad light. Will not throw them to the Press.”
Questions about the transparency of governments and companies about the coronavirus extend far beyond meatpacking. Chinese officials have been widely criticized for not fully disclosing the extent of the virus’s spread within their borders. And in the United States, President Trump has questioned the official death toll from the coronavirus, suggesting that the numbers may be inflated even as public health experts and statisticians say the opposite is more likely true.
The meat companies are not legally…
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