Staff Columnist

Iowa workers are paying a high price for our meat. Our top politicians don't care

In this Friday, May 1, 2020, photo, a worker leaves the Tyson Foods plant in Waterloo, Iowa. The coronavirus is devastat
In this Friday, May 1, 2020, photo, a worker leaves the Tyson Foods plant in Waterloo, Iowa. The coronavirus is devastating the nation’s meatpacking communities — places like Waterloo and Sioux City in Iowa, Grand Island, Neb., and Worthington, Minn. Within weeks, the outbreaks around slaughterhouses have turned into full-scale disasters. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Well, folks, it is grilling season again in the Midwest. Be sure to check the label on your favorite pork products to see how many meatpacking workers got COVID-19 at the plant that processed them.

Yeah, you won’t find that information on your Iowa pork chops. But it really should be there, given how we’ve now accepted the fact that sick workers are just part of the price of pork production. And our state’s top leaders don’t much care, so long as the hogs keep moving.

Some workers will, and have already, died keeping the food chain slicing, cutting and grinding.

News of the latest meatpacking plant outbreak in Iowa came this past week when we found out 555 workers at a Tyson pork processing plant in Storm Lake contracted COVID 19. And we only found out because reporters kept asking. Gov. Kim Reynolds and her public health team said they no longer report plant outbreaks unless they’re asked by journalists. You can’t find information on meatpacking outbreaks on the state’s COVID-19 website.

The Storm Lake plant shut down temporarily after the news went public.

The latest Tyson outbreak came nearly a month after outbreaks were reported at Tyson plants in Waterloo, Perry and Columbus Junction. At that time, Reynolds praised the company for the measures it was taking to protect workers in reaction to the outbreaks.

A few days after those outbreaks were reported May 5, Reynolds was at the White House to meet with President Donald Trump for a praise-fest regarding their pandemic response.

“We’re still monitoring it. We’re turning a corner,” Reynolds said in the Oval Office, according to a report by the Iowa Capital Dispatch.

Trump himself described how Reynolds, “had a great talk with the owners of the plants. The top people … And I think it was a very strong talk and I think they got the message.”

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Now, we have 555 more cases at a Tyson plant. What happened? How did we turn a corner and hit another wall? It seems like it’s the governor who should be grilled.

This is, sadly, not surprising. The grand strategy is hard to miss, even amid all the grill smoke and mirrors.

We’re going to keep the plants running no matter how bad it gets. We’re going to help these companies hide information detailing how bad it truly is. We’re not going to require companies to do anything, “guidance” only, and we’ll take their word that they’re doing something. We’ll praise that something as being “proactive” even though it’s after an outbreak has occurred. We’ll do too few inspections to confirm, however, or do much of anything about worker complaints.

More people will get sick and die, and we hope reporters don’t ask about it. Also, news briefings will now be just twice weekly.

These companies have known from the beginning of the pandemic they would get no interference from friendly state officials who enjoy political and monetary support from large agricultural interests. But the failure to prepare and act quickly to shield workers, resulting in plant shutdowns and slowdowns, also has harmed livestock producers.

Reynolds doesn’t want to talk about meatpacking outbreaks. Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts’s administration will not disclose the number of virus cases at individual plants. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem blamed workers’ living conditions for the outbreaks there, not their work, shoulder-to-shoulder, at the plants. And who can forget Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Patience Roggensack, who remarked that a plant outbreak in Wisconsin wasn’t affecting “regular folks.”

Nothing to see here. Shut up and have some ribs.

But journalists are tallying up the damage. Both the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting and the Food and Environment Reporting Network are tracking food plant cases nationally. FERN’s tally of meatpacking cases nationwide stood at more than 18,000 as of Thursday. By its count, Iowa leads the nation in the number of plant cases. Add the Storm Lake outbreak to FERN’s number, and Iowa’s meatpacking plants have passed 3,000 total cases.

But journalists are also making sure these workers are more than numbers. The AP’s Ryan Foley has written about the victims, including the death of Axel Kabeya, a Congolese refugee who worked at the Tyson plant in Waterloo. Kabeya left behind a wife and children.

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Jose Andrade-Garcia worked at the JBS plant in Marshalltown and died just a week before retirement. Jose Ayala, 44, also worked at the Tyson Waterloo plant and friends chronicled his struggle with the virus on social media. He died at St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids.

These workers are people, many are immigrants and refugees who fled strife for a better life, and all are essential Iowans. We should be talking about how to keep them safer, how to hold companies accountable for their health and how we can change a food system that’s put them in danger just so we can keep our meat counters stocked. It’s a system that also harms many of our farmers. Real changes should be the pandemic’s legacy, not a stack of spreadsheets.

We shouldn’t be hiding the numbers, running interference for corporate mismanagement and changing the subject. This is a failure and a disaster that cost lives. No other labels will do.

(319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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