States are rolling back recent transparency measures in how they report meatpacking plant outbreaks

This decision carried implications for the state’s meat industry, which had logged more than a dozen outbreaks since the pandemic began.

Several states introduced more rigorous public reporting of COVID-19 outbreaks and cases in the agriculture sector this summer after calls from advocates and the media for more transparency. But several of those efforts have been stalled, rolled back, or rely on outdated information, which public health experts and labor advocates say hinders communities’ and workers’ ability to curtail the spread of the virus.

On Sept. 2, Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly announced that the state would begin releasing weekly reports with the names of businesses that had active COVID-19 outbreaks. Citing “the largest increase in outbreaks to date,” Kelly said that the information would help Kansans “be better prepared to contain and stop the spread of the virus.”

This decision carried implications for the state’s meat industry, which had logged more than a dozen outbreaks since the pandemic began. The information released by the state on Sept. 9 revealed hundreds of previously unreported cases and two previously unreported outbreaks at meatpacking facilities, bringing the state’s COVID count to nearly 3,500 cases at 17 facilities.

Yet after just one week, Kansas walked back this new reporting approach. The list of private businesses was replaced on the Kansas Department of Health and Environment website with a note indicating that due to “lots of feedback, both positive and negative,” the agency was “assess[ing] our process.” When the data were next updated, on Sept. 23, all but one of the meatpacking plant outbreaks had been removed from the list and only cases in the last 14 days were reported.

Ron Keefover, president of the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government, says he believes the department received “pushback” from business organizations that felt disclosure was “detrimental to their businesses.” His organization has advocated for comprehensive reporting on COVID-19 outbreaks to aid in the public’s risk assessment of everyday activities, he says. He also takes issue with Kansas’ initial decision to set the reporting threshold for private business outbreaks at 20 or more cases (the threshold is now five cases).

“We think that any number set would be less than transparent,” he says. “Any restaurant in Kansas, for example, is subject to inspections, and those inspection records are made available regardless of whether there’s one infraction or 20.”

The Kansas health department did not respond to questions about its decision to rework its reports.

Arkansas has also abruptly changed how it reports outbreaks and cases of COVID-19 in the state’s meatpacking industry. In late August, the Arkansas Department of Health (ADH) began releasing biweekly reports on outbreaks and cases at private businesses to its website, with a special report for the state’s poultry sector, which has had more than 30 outbreaks and more than 5,000 cases among workers. But in mid-September, the reports were temporarily removed from the ADH website and then replaced by a newly formatted report that does not include company names, instead identifying outbreaks by sector.

When asked to comment on the decision to remove company names from its published reports, an ADH spokesperson said only that information on specific companies could be obtained upon request.

Most states still have no consistent practice for reporting COVID-19 food system data. FERN reported in August that just four states were regularly publishing comprehensive data on COVID-19 outbreaks, cases, or deaths at food production or processing facilities, or would share that information upon request. Several major agricultural states, including California, Iowa, and Nebraska, either did not respond to requests or don’t disclose the relevant data.

A few states are publishing a narrow subset of the data, and only infrequently. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services in mid-August began posting a count of outbreaks by sector and region to its coronavirus dashboard. But the data, which groups together all outbreaks linked to agriculture and food processing, are updated only periodically and are currently more than a week out of date. The Virginia Department of Health is releasing cumulative data once a month tallying outbreaks, cases, and deaths for just meat and poultry plants.

These data-reporting practices differ from those recommended by public health experts. A July report from Resolve to Save Lives, a public health advocacy group led by Tom Friedan, a former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recommended that all states regularly report comprehensive data on COVID-19 outbreaks and cases.

“To the extent legally permissible, all states should report a list of long-term care and other congregate facilities, and essential workplace (e.g., meatpacking) outbreaks,” the report reads, and information should be cumulative and dated to the most recent week. The report was endorsed by several public health and epidemiological groups, including the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health and the American Public Health Association.

Navina Khanna, director of the HEAL Food Alliance, which advocates for food system workers, says that comprehensive data about the spread of COVID-19 at food facilities is necessary for curtailing the spread of the virus and for protecting workers.

“By suppressing the true story of COVID-19 in the workplace, government officials are prioritizing corporate interests over the health of our communities,” she says. “Transparency in data and a shared understanding of the realities in the workplace are critical so that we can protect working people, their families, and surrounding communities, and ultimately achieve our shared goals of stopping this pandemic.”

As of September 23, FERN had counted more than 59,900 cases and 256 deaths among food system workers, as well as more than 900 outbreaks, in nearly every state.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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