Editor’s desk: Government relied on FERN meatpacking data

Photo by Mary Anne Andrei

FERN is a small news operation, with just eight full-time employees. Yet as Covid-19 rampaged through meatpacking plants across the country last year, the federal government relied on us—not The New York Times, The Washington Post, or any of the other media heavyweights— to track the number of sick and dead workers at those plants. 

This was made clear on Wednesday in a report by the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, which found that five of the biggest meatpackers failed dramatically to protect their workers during the pandemic, with at least 269 deaths and at least 59,000 infections from Covid-19 among their employees. 

This was roughly three times more than what former FERN staff writer Leah Douglas had compiled in our Covid-19 Tracking Project, which ran from April 2020 through September 2021.  

Most meatpackers kept their coronavirus counts secret, even as outbreaks forced some to slow or stop production temporarily in spring 2020. For 17 months, Leah scoured local media reports and badgered and FOIAed county and state health departments to build her database. Five of the dominant beef and pork processors — JBS USA, Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods, Cargill, and National Beef — provided documentation to the subcommittee for this report.

An OSHA official described FERN’s work as the best independent source of information on the pandemic’s impact on meat workers, and said that the agency had “relied at least in part on data from FERN to track worker infections and deaths.” The subcommittee report cited FERN’s data as its baseline for previously reported cases.

We’ve long said that FERN punches above its weight class, and this report is more evidence of that. Accountability journalism—the work that FERN was created to do—is more important than ever. But while we’re obviously proud of Leah’s reporting, the underlying story is tragic.And as the subcommittee report spelled out, it didn’t have to be that way.

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