CDC Report on a Pork Plant’s COVID-19 Outbreak was Watered Down

Published Oct 7, 2020

What happened: A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report, which detailed an investigation on a major COVID-19 outbreak at a South Dakota pork plant, was edited and reissued one day later to be softer and less certain about its science-based recommendations.

Why it matters: Scientists who are on the ground investigating emergency public health situations need to be given the independence to accurately report what is going on and how we can fix the situation. These CDC reports, known as epidemiologic assistance reports, are vital in stopping immediate, life-threatening health emergencies. Additionally, the reports often form the underlying basis of future policy actions and scientific research. Watering down this CDC report prevented decisionmakers from being able to use the best available science to protect people’s health and safety during the pandemic.

The evidence-based recommendations in a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report on an enormous outbreak at the Smithfield pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota was sidelined for what appears to be political reasons. This issue came to light during an investigation by House Committee on Education and Labor, who obtained the original CDC report and the revised copy, and was first reported by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow.

The revised version of the report was peppered with the phrases like “whenever possible” and “if feasible.” In the revised version, the use of the word “feasible” quadrupled (2 to 9 times) and the use of the word “possible” almost doubled (11 to 20 times) as compared with the original version. In the revised report’s first paragraph, these two unusual sentences were added: “The recommendations in this memorandum are steps that Smithfield Foods may want to consider implementing to address the conditions we identified at the plant. These recommendations are discretionary and not required or mandated by the CDC.”

According to Maddow, the original report, dated April 21, had gone through all levels of clearance within the CDC, including two CDC task forces and the Associate Director of Science, and had been submitted as the final version to the requesting agency, the South Dakota Department of Health. Two sources told Maddow that the CDC team who wrote the report was contacted by the Office of the Director of the CDC, Robert Redfield’s office, and was told to retract their report and change the language on the recommendations to be less forthright, resulting in the revised report, dated April 22. Additionally, the House Committee on Education and Labor learned that CDC Director Robert Redfield and US Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue had a phone call on April 22; the committee is currently investigating if this was related to the revised CDC report.

The CDC report is a particular type of report known as an epidemiologic assistance reports (Epi-Aid reports). An Epi-Aid report results from an investigation of an urgent public health problem, usually due to an infectious disease outbreak. It is meant “to assist partners in making rapid, practical decisions for actions to prevent and control the public health problem.” Epi-Aid investigations and reports have been carried out since 1946 and are considered one of the most important jobs that the CDC does. Epi-Aids are responsible for training thousands of epidemiologists and have helped expand the CDC’s mission and duties. Recommendations from Epi-Aid reports have also led to important policy changes and a swathe of scientific publications. To quote a scientific publication analyzing the impact of Epi-Aids, “Such investigations are only a part of what the agency [does]… nonetheless, they contribute considerably to the trust in the CDC expressed by the US public and the international community.”

As discussed in previous attacks on science and blog posts, workers at meat processing plants face considerable risk of injury while on-the-job, mostly from debilitating carpel tunnel syndrome, but also from limb amputations and infectious diseases. Additionally, workers face low wages, have a decreased ability to speak up about hazardous working conditions, are routinely denied adequate bathroom breaks. At the South Dakota Smithfield plant, approximately 40 different languages are spoken by the plant’s workers and most of the workers came to the US as refugees, fleeing war zones and abject poverty.

When the COVID-19 outbreak hit the Smithfield plant in March and April, it caused substantial harm to the workers, resulting in 26 percent of the workforce (929 people) and nine percent of their contacts (210 people) being diagnosed with COVID-19. Of those diagnosed with COVID-19, two workers died and 39 workers and nine contacts were hospitalized. The CDC reported that the outbreak was responsible for 41 percent of all COVID-19 cases identified among community residents.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cited the Smithfield plant for failing to protect its workers from COVID-19 and fined it the maximum amount allowable, $13,494. Additionally, a group of workers are suing the plant for failing to provide workers with sufficient protective equipment; forcing them to work shoulder to shoulder; giving them insufficient opportunities to wash their hands; discouraging them from taking sick leave; and failing to implement a plan for testing and contact tracing.

Pork and poultry plants are a high risk of COVID-19 outbreaks and yet, during the pandemic, the federal government has consistently prioritized the voices of industry executives over the health-based concerns of the workers. For instance, the executive order to keep pork and poultry plants open was likely influenced by lobbying efforts and language suggestions from the industry executives to the US Department of Agriculture. Government officials being swayed by industry executives is suspected to be the reason why the CDC report was watered down. CDC scientists should be allowed to freely and transparently report what they find during outbreak and what the evidence suggests is best way to prevent and mitigate further harm. When political pressure prevents CDC scientists from being to do their job well, this hampers our ability to use the best available science to slow the spread of a deadly disease across the US and the world.