There have reportedly been tens of thousands of coronavirus cases at meat and poultry plants. More than 44,000 workers nationwide have tested positive for the virus, and more than 200 have died, according to the Food & Environment Reporting Network, an investigative nonprofit.
In late April, President Trump issued an executive order urging plants to stay open. Since then, CBS News has only been able to identify a couple of plants that were temporarily closed by government agencies due to COVID-19 outbreaks. One is the Foster Farms poultry plant in California’s Merced County.
Despite what it says was political pressure, the small county’s health department closed down the plant in Livingston for one week due to a COVID-19 outbreak that claimed some workers’ lives.
One of those workers was Perla Meza’s 61-year-old father Filiberto, who she says worked unloading trucks at Foster Farms for years until he came down with COVID-19.
“He was in quarantine for three days when everything got worse,” Meza said.
In August, he went to the hospital and then into a coma for three days, Meza said. He later died.
Some 2,600 people work at the plant. Merced County public health officials declared an outbreak there in late June, and during a visit, recommended Foster Farms test all of its workers, said department director Rebecca Nanyonjo-Kemp.
“You need to conduct universal screening of all of your staff. You have way too many staff here to be able to control one factor. You’re being controlled by the factors because you have so many people here,” Nanyonjo-Kemp said. “Don’t let your illness take over your facility.”
The plant said they would listen to the advice, Nanyonjo-Kemp said.
“Unfortunately, that did not materialize,” she told CBS News consumer investigative correspondent Anna Werner.
Only limited testing occurred, she said. In July, two workers died of COVID-19.
The county continued to monitor the outbreak, and on August 7, Foster Farms provided a list showing the number of workers actively infected and those whose cases they described as “resolved.”
But county health officer Dr. Salvador Sandoval noticed the list contained no deaths, even though county health staff said workers had told them there were more.
So the health department emailed Foster Farms to ask if there were “any known deaths,” and the next week, received a new list. This time, Sandoval said, five names previously listed only as “resolved” were now listed as “deaths.”
The company put the names “in a category that made it difficult for our investigators to tag them as being people who had died,” Sandoval said.
He described what the company did as “misleading.” “I feel it’s wrong,” he said.
The company told CBS News, “There was no intentional effort on the part of Foster Farms to deceive the Merced (County) Public Health Department,” and said, “All issues related to the reporting of data were quickly resolved.”
But late in August, with eight deaths and over 350 confirmed cases, county health officials told Foster Farms the plant would