A Tyson Fresh Meats plant is seen on April 27 in Emporia, Kan.  Kansas is one of the states that has faced criticism over its lack of transparency about coronavirus cases in meat processing plants.

A Tyson Fresh Meats plant is seen on April 27 in Emporia, Kan. Kansas is one of the states that has faced criticism over its lack of transparency about coronavirus cases in meat processing plants. Charlie Riedel / AP

Federal Inspectors Decry Lack of Transparency on Meat Plant Coronavirus Outbreaks

The agency has also stopped taking questions from employees, inspectors say.

Federal meat and poultry inspectors are raising concerns about a lack of transparency surrounding the safety of the processing plants where they work, saying local leaders are withholding information relating to the spread of the novel coronavirus at facilities. 

The frustration comes as companies are starting to reopen facilities around the country after President Trump issued an executive order seeking to compel a reversal at those that had shuttered their doors due to COVID-19 outbreaks. Employees said the agency has ceased answering their questions and responding to concerns, and state officials have stopped providing information regarding employee safety. 

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 6,500 Food Safety Inspection Service employees at the Agriculture Department, specifically cited Gov. Pete Ricketts, R-Neb., for his administration’s decision to no longer provide data of infection rates at specific food processing plants. At many communities with large meat processing facilities, coronavirus outbreaks have traced back almost entirely to the plants. The trend has led to facility closures or shift reductions, and thousands of plant employees and hundreds of federal inspectors contracting the virus. Without the data, the union said, employees and inspectors cannot take proper precautions. 

“Hiding the number of infections from the public doesn't make the infections go away,” said Gregg James, vice president of the AFGE council that includes Nebraska inspectors. “If anything, it encourages this deadly virus to spread further by giving people a false sense of security.” 

Other Midwestern states, such as Wisconsin and Kansas, have faced criticism for failing to disclose food processing coronavirus data. In Texas, a JBS plant faced significant pushback after it turned down an offer by the state to test all employees at a facility in Cactus. It eventually relented after the Texas Tribune reported on the issue. 

“Federal meat and poultry inspectors work in close proximity to plant employees, making social distancing virtually impossible, and making it all the more critical that they know when and where infections are occurring,” said Paula Schelling, president of the AFGE council that represents all FSIS members and an inspector for more than 30 years. 

Nearly 200 inspectors have tested positive for COVID-19, and five have died from related symptoms. 

Employees expressed fear and anger about Trump’s executive order looking to reopen facilities, noting they had received no information from USDA about how the department would ensure their safety at reopened plants that had become coronavirus hotspots. FSIS is now requiring all inspectors to wear masks, telling employees those who do not will face discipline. The mandate, issued this week, marked a total reversal for FSIS, which initially barred employees from wearing masks out of concern it would cause panic at the plants they inspect. The agency then allowed employees to wear them if plant supervisors signed off.

At a tele-town hall in late April, FSIS Administrator Paul Kiecker said employees at plants not supplying masks would have to find their own protective equipment. The agency said it would reimburse employees up to $50 for mask purchases. Last week, however, FSIS said it had procured 30,000 masks and would distribute them to employees. 

Also late last month, FSIS stopped taking questions from employees during its weekly town halls. Agency leaders said they would address employee questions submitted to a digital inbox, but have failed to do so, according to inspectors. 

There were “no questions answered,” a third FSIS inspector said. “People are just pretty mad about it.” 

Among employees concerns are how FSIS will prevent the spread of the coronavirus as it relocates employees from one hotspot to another, if hazard pay will be made available and details on the agency's leave policy. 

Despite Trump’s order, plants are continuing to experience outbreaks and close. Some grocery stores around the country are experiencing meat shortages and farmers are left with excess animals that cannot be processed for food. 

Buck McKay, an FSIS spokesman, has said “ensuring the U.S. supply chain remains strong is [the agency’s] top priority.” He added the agency is prepared to be “operationally nimble” and use all flexibilities at its disposal to ensure it does not experience staffing shortages as more employees get sick or stay home out of concern for their safety. In April, the agency told employees exposed to the virus to continue reporting to work until they developed symptoms.