Documents show scope of Covid-19 in North Carolina meat industry

At the height of the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of positive cases at 10 North Carolina meatpacking plants was 75 percent higher than reported publicly, internal health department records reveal, showing the huge gulf between what was known by officials and the public about the scope of workplace infections.

As of mid-June, the documents show that nearly 2,000 workers were sick at the 10 facilities owned by companies like Tyson Foods and Pilgrim’s Pride, about 800 more than reported in the media or by public health officials. The 10 were just a portion of the 29 meat plants that, the records show, had active infections at the time.

Getting accurate information on the numbers of workers sickened by the pandemic and the location of hotspots has been a continuing challenge. The records, for example, also uncover the location of 12 outbreaks at pork, beef, and poultry plants that were previously undisclosed, spanning several counties across the state.

The documents were obtained from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) via public records requests by the Documenting Covid-19 Project at the Brown Institute for Media Innovation and reported in collaboration with the Food and Environment Reporting Network. They uncover new details about the spread of Covid-19 at these hotspot facilities during the spring and the debate between state and local health officials over releasing more data about the severity and location of meat plant outbreaks.

Covid-19 has spread to more than 550 meatpacking plants across the country, where it has sickened more than 50,000 workers and killed 255, according to FERN’s tracker. These include 4,122 cases and 21 deaths among meatpacking workers in North Carolina as of early December, per the state health department. Public health experts and labor advocates have called on the state’s public officials to release more data on the virus’s spread at food plants, to inform both workers and the wider community about where new infections may be occurring.

“The issue of reporting is a huge issue,” says MaryBe McMillan, president of the North Carolina AFL-CIO. “How are we going to keep workers safe if we’re not letting workers know about outbreaks, if we’re not monitoring and testing? … It’s not just a workplace safety issue, it is a community issue.”

The 10 meatpacking facilities in North Carolina whose case counts were higher than reported include a Tyson poultry plant in Wilkesboro, a Smithfield pork plant in Tar Heel, and a Mountaire poultry plant in Siler City. As of June 12, 1,939 workers at those facilities had contracted Covid-19, according to internal documents from the state public health department. However, media reports have only confirmed 1,103 cases at those facilities, a gap of over 800 cases that were never reported publicly. The documents, however, don’t reveal current case counts at those and other meatpacking facilities.

The documents also detail outbreaks at 12 meatpacking facilities that had not previously been disclosed by the health department. Those plants are owned by Tyson, Perdue Farms, Case Farms, House of Raeford, Pilgrim’s Pride, and Butterball, among other packers. Nearly 200 workers were sick at these facilities as of June 12. At all 29 facilities included in the internal report, nearly 2,500 workers were ill.

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) said in a statement that it has “seen a decline in overall cases and clusters of COVID-19 in meat-processing plants” in recent months. Twenty-one of the state’s meat plant outbreaks have been resolved, it said, and 20 are ongoing. Citing a state communicable diseases law, the department also said that it does not confirm outbreaks at specific facilities or report individual facility information.

In the spring, however, internal emails show that North Carolina health officials were planning to start releasing data about outbreaks at specific meatpacking facilities, in addition to a cumulative count of cases among workers. State health official Erica Berl wrote to local health officials on May 2 alerting them that NCDHHS would soon begin reporting facility names, counties, cases, and deaths, to be updated twice a week.

The move was strongly resisted by the local officials, who worried that the detailed reports would alienate the meat industry and make plants less likely to comply with public health measures.

“[T]his is disappointing and it will fracture the relationships built at the local level with these processing plants,” wrote Heath Cain, Lee County health director, in an email response to Berl. “[T]his will deter our efforts to build public health partnerships now and in the future.”

“Our plant agreed to mass testing and has been very cooperative. That, cooperation I fear will now end. By posting this information they are essentially being penalized for cooperating,” wrote Layton Long, Chatham County health director, who has since retired.

Ultimately, the state chose only to release reports with cumulative tallies of outbreaks and worker cases by sector. Previous reporting on meatpacking plants outbreaks in the state has found confusion, incomplete information, and industry pressure plaguing the health department’s response and decision-making about whether to release outbreak data.

Advocates are still pushing the state to expand its public reporting of workplace outbreaks.

“When [workers] go to work everyday, they just want to know the extent to which these plants are hotspots for exposure to the virus,” says Hunter Ogletree, co-director of the Western NC Workers’ Center.

In response to questions about their handling of North Carolina outbreaks, Tyson, Smithfield, and Butterball all said they have followed guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration at their facilities. Mountaire could not be reached for comment.

In a statement, Tyson said their “top priority” is the health and safety of their workers and they “have likely been involved in more COVID testing than any other company in the country.”

Smithfield said the company has had a low incidence of COVID cases in North Carolina and they have taken “extraordinary measures” to ensure employee protection, investing over $650 million nationwide in a wide range of critical measures.

A spokesperson for Butterball said that since the onset of the pandemic the company has put in place “space processes and procedures at all of our plants,” and “continue to aggressively pursue initiatives that best protect our teams.”

Worker advocates recently petitioned the state government to adopt an emergency temporary infectious disease standard that would require employers, including meatpackers, to implement more rigorous Covid-19 protections. On Nov. 9, the state rejected the petition on the grounds that its other actions to curtail the spread of the virus have been sufficient to address workplace risks.

Lead image: Medical personnel assist patients at a community coronavirus testing site in Burlington, North Carolina, in July. AP Photo by Gerry Broome.

You made it this far so we know you appreciate our work. FERN is a nonprofit and relies on the generosity of our readers so that we can continue producing incisive reporting like this story. Please consider making a donation to support our work. Thank you.

This article was produced in collaboration with the Documenting Covid-19 Project at the Brown Institute for Media Innovation. It may not be reproduced without express permission from FERN. If you are interested in republishing or reposting this article, please contact [email protected]