U.S. government tried to "intimidate" California county health department to keep poultry plant open after COVID deaths, director says

California county ordered plant to shut down
California county ordered plant to shut down 05:57

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 have to be temporarily closed.

That's when Nanyonjo-Kemp says she suddenly found herself talking to federal agencies, with one, she says, mentioning the Defense Production Act, part of the president's executive order to keep plants running.

Asked if anyone was suggesting to her that they couldn't shut down the plant, Nanyonjo-Kemp said, "Yes. I'll be forthcoming. Yes."

"From the federal government?" Werner asked.

"Correct," Nanyonjo-Kemp said. "They were trying to intimidate. We refused to be intimidated."  

"The whole idea of this is eight people died. How many more need to die for this to be an issue? You know, for us, that was enough," Nanyonjo-Kemp added. 

The United States Department of Agriculture confirmed setting up a phone call with various federal and state agencies, but did not respond to CBS News' question of whether it pressured county health officials to keep the plant open.

The plant was forced to close for a week, then reopened under county monitoring.

Foster Farms said it is following public health officials' requirements and has now hit a testing benchmark of a less than 1% positivity rate among its workers, with what it says is now the "most extensive testing program in California."

The company maintains "employee health and welfare has always been Foster Farms' highest priority." 

But Meza doesn't agree. One of the five names revealed as deaths on that second list in August was her father's.

"They don't care. I don't think they care. Eight deaths. Eight," she said.

The county now says there has been another death reported, bringing the total number of workers who have died to nine. While the county no longer considers this to be an outbreak, it said the company will continue providing reports.

Foster Farms said it is putting in place other requirements mandated by the county, including hiring a licensed health care professional to oversee its COVID-19 programs, and one-on-one COVID-19 training for its employees.