Few states release data about Covid-19 in the food system

Over the past six months, Covid-19 has spread rapidly through the workforces of farms, food processing facilities, and meatpacking plants in nearly every state, infecting tens of thousands. Yet determining the exact number of workers who have contracted or died from the virus is virtually impossible, because few states are publicly reporting case and death data in the food and farm sectors.

FERN sent detailed email requests for cumulative worker case, death, and employer data to press contacts at 48 state departments of health. (Two states, Oregon and Colorado, already release the relevant data weekly on their health department websites.)

The survey found just four states that are regularly reporting, or would share upon request, comprehensive worker and employer data related to Covid-19 outbreaks at food production and processing businesses.

In response to FERN’s request, health departments in Maine and West Virginia shared the most comprehensive data on Covid-19 outbreaks at food facilities in their states. Maine has had few outbreaks, and West Virginia’s only outbreak, at a Pilgrim’s Pride facility in Moorefield, was resolved several months ago.

Twelve other states shared partial information, such as cumulative case counts but without employer information, number of current outbreaks but not past ones, or number of cases by sector but not broken out by facility type.

Fifteen states declined to share any data, either because the state is not keeping records of cases in the food sector or because the department simply declined to release the data. Nineteen states did not respond to multiple follow-up requests.

These spotty responses are “not a surprise,” says Derek Kravitz, head of Documenting Covid-19, an open-records project at Columbia University’s Brown Institute for Media Innovation. The project gathers federal, state, and local Covid-19 data through records requests, including data related to meatpacking plants and farms.

Kravitz says his team has encountered many “obstacles and difficulties” obtaining data from states on the spread of Covid-19, particularly the names and locations of businesses where outbreaks have occurred. “Specific facility outbreaks including historical and cumulative information is vital to understanding the role of those outbreaks in larger community spread and the demographic changes we’ve seen in outbreaks across the country,” he says.

Since the pandemic began, FERN has been tracking the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths among workers on farms, at food processing facilities, and at meatpacking plants. As of Aug. 17, more than 55,000 of those workers had contracted the virus and nearly 240 had died.

Those figures are almost certainly undercounts, due to minimal public- and private-sector disclosure. Earlier reporting from FERN found that none of the major meatpackers are regularly disclosing Covid-19 outbreaks or cases at their facilities. And data from the states hasn’t been much better, in part because of industry influence. In some states, like North Carolina, public health officials have not regularly disclosed information about outbreaks and cases at meatpacking facilities due to fear of pushback from the industry.

“When states fail to disclose this information or cite existing or long-standing relationships with public or private companies as a reason to withhold it, it leaves the public lacking,” Kravitz says. “This is a public health concern.”

In some states, individual counties are breaking with state policy and reporting their own Covid-19 data. Monterey County in California provides daily updates on Covid-19 cases by workplace sector, including agriculture. Yakima County in Washington State has released comprehensive food-sector Covid-19 data upon request since the pandemic began. Los Angeles County’s health department hosts a database of workplace outbreaks that is updated daily.

Yet the gaps in state reporting encompass huge swaths of the country’s major agricultural regions. Florida, which produces 50 percent of the nation’s tomatoes, told FERN it had found no record of Covid-19 cases in the farm sector after a “thorough search.” California, home to the country’s largest farm sector, referred FERN to the USDA, which is not reporting Covid-19 cases at all. Major meatpacking states like Iowa, Kansas, and Texas did not respond to multiple data requests.

Even in states with regular disclosure practices, there are limitations placed on the data. Oregon’s weekly workplace Covid-19 reports include only outbreaks of more than five cases, and only at workplaces with at least 30 employees. Colorado’s database includes only outbreaks of more than two cases, and bi-weekly reports from the Arkansas health department on Covid-19 in workplaces include only current outbreaks, not previous ones.

This lack of transparency extends beyond the food sector, according to a recent report by the American Public Health Association (APHA) and other public health groups. Virtually no states are publicly reporting an “optimal” amount of information about how Covid-19 is contracted and spreads, the report found, and one-third of states are not publicly reporting any information on outbreaks in hot spot workplaces like meatpacking plants.

Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of APHA, says that public access to Covid-19 case and outbreak data is essential because, simply, “what gets measured, gets done. Not having the data, not having accurate information, leaves you blind,” he says.

Benjamin points to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration as the federal body most to blame for the lack of rigorous, publicly available Covid-19 data. “In my mind, this is a failure of OSHA to provide the regulatory oversight [and] guidance,” he says, arguing that the agency should have given states direction on what data to track and report. “It tells you a lot about the close relationship between the regulators and the industry.”