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Report: Meatpacking Industry Ignored Years of Warnings About What a Pandemic Would Mean

(Photo by Bethany Wood, Kansas News Service)

An investigation by the nonprofit newsroom ProPublica found that despite years of warnings about the possibility of a pandemic, meatpackers didn’t heed guidance on how to prepare.

The report says infectious disease experts and emergency planners had modeled what might happen with the arrival of a highly contagious virus, including how an outbreak might create food shortages and plant closures.

And those experts repeatedly urged companies and government agencies to prepare.

“It was an unmitigated disaster for food processors, and it didn’t have to be,” John Hoffman, who developed emergency planning for the food and agriculture sector at the Department of Homeland Security during the George W. Bush administration, told ProPublica. “There are things that could have happened in a pandemic that would have been novel, but this has unfolded pretty much as the pandemic plan has suggested it would.”

Instead, the report says, the industry chose to deal with any such crisis as it came.

White House officials brought food and agriculture industry leaders together nearly 15 years ago to chart a game plan for a pandemic. And George W. Bush administration officials warned businesses that “as many as 40% of their workers might be absent due to illness, quarantine or fear,” the ProPublica story says. “Social distancing would be necessary in manufacturing plants … even if it affected business operations. And government modeling showed that such high absenteeism would cut food production in half.”

In Kansas, the meatpacking plants critical to the economy of the southwest corner of the state have become COVID-19 hotspots. The Kansas News Service reported last week that plants in the state were kept open despite concerns from at least one top local public health physician in Finney County, who warned that keeping the plants open posed an avoidable risk to a lethal threat.

So far, public health officials in the state have linked meatpacking plants to roughly 3,300 cases, more than a dozen deaths and 16 coronavirus cluster outbreaks. That makes them the largest source of outbreaks in Kansas — more than double tied to long-term care facilities.

Read the ProPublica story here

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