The meatpacking industry seems to be following Donald Trump’s approach to coronavirus statistics: if people don’t know how bad it is, they can’t blame you. Oh, the meatpacking companies say their insistence on secrecy is about privacy, but: “Alerting a community about the number of cases in a particular place is a standard public health response,” Boston University public health expert Nicole Huberfeld told The New York Times.
The Washington Post estimates there are more than 11,000 infections at meatpacking plants across the country. The Food and Environment Reporting Network estimates more than 17,000. But estimates are all we have because of the industry’s secrecy and the reluctance of local public health officials to stand up to some of the largest employers in their communities.
In Dallas County, Iowa, local public health officials wanted to tell Tyson Foods: “At this time, we strongly recommend this option be implemented immediately” as they offered the company rapid COVID-19 testing. The county’s lawyer watered that down to: “At this time, we ask you to consider this be implemented as soon as possible.”
”It was in the vein of choosing wording cautiously and conservatively so we didn’t get in a position where we were overstepping our bounds,” he told The New York Times in an example for the ages of pathetic mealy-mouthedness. It was a recommendation, dude! Not a requirement! Tyson couldn’t exactly go to court claiming they’d been required to do anything the government couldn’t legally require. All they could do was be annoyed while ignoring it, and that possibility was too much for this cautious and conservative legal genius.
A couple weeks later, state health officials had gotten Tyson on board with testing and announced that 58% of the plant’s workers had tested positive. But at least that didn’t happen after the county strongly recommended anything.
In Colorado, notes from a conference call have a county health official saying of a Cargill plant dealing with an outbreak: “At this point, we are not doing anything to cast them in a bad light. Will not throw them to the Press.”
Higher up, meatpacking companies have a strong ally in the Trump administration, which they are confident will shield them from liability for infections and deaths in crowded, unsanitary workplaces. So it’s unlikely we’re getting at the truth anytime soon, but what we do know, even with the secrecy in place, is bad enough.