The death of a third worker from COVID-19 at a California food processing facility has renewed pressure on the Foster Farms company just days after a court ordered it to provide face masks to employees and follow a number of other anti-virus measures. Three workers at Foster Farms' Cherry Avenue plant in Fresno and nine at its Livingston plant in Merced County have now died of COVID-19.
Foster Farms says it implemented a "comprehensive testing program across all of its California facilities" in mid-August, starting with its primary facility in Livingston.
The company says tests conducted since then have shown "less than 1%" positive COVID-19 results among staff, and it claims to be "closely following" guidance for food production facilities from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), "and taking all necessary steps to ensure our employees' protection and safety."
But the death over the weekend of the third employee from the Fresno facility, reported by the Los Angeles Times to have been a Sikh man of Punjabi descent in his 50s, has brought new accusations that the company is putting production before safety.
Deep Singh, director of the Jakara Movement, a Central Valley family advocacy organization aimed at the Sikh community, told the Times that Foster Farms had shown a "callous lack of concern and protections that prioritize worker safety and their families."
Singh told the newspaper that family members believe the man, who died over the weekend after three weeks in intensive care, contracted COVID-19 while working at the plant, as the family was limiting community excursions to work and other essential trips.
The Times said that, despite the overall 1% positivity rate noted on Foster Farms website, at least 193 people from the Fresno plant had tested positive for COVID-19 in recent weeks, amounting to about 20% of the staff at the facility.
A court order
Just before Christmas, a Merced County court said Foster Farms' Livingston chicken processing plant, where the larger outbreak struck over the summer, must provide its workers with masks and follow other anti-COVID-19 health orders.
A judge granted a temporary restraining order sought by a labor union against Foster Farms.
Foster Farms said in response that it was already following all safety rules and repeatedly testing employees for the coronavirus, which has caused serious outbreaks at meatpacking plants nationwide.
Foster Farms is far from the only company impacted by the coronavirus, which scientists believe can spread easily in the close quarters and cool conditions of meat processing facilities.
More than 77,000 meat and poultry plant and farm workers nationwide had tested positive for the virus as of mid-December and almost 350 had died, according to the Food & Environment Reporting Network, an investigative nonprofit organization.
Pressure to keep working
CBS News reported early in the autumn that Merced County's public health department director, Rebecca Nanyonjo-Kemp, had visited Foster Farms' main plant in Livingston as it dealt with the large COVID-19 outbreak and warned the company that it had "way too many staff" working there to manage infections. She told CBS News that the universal testing she had recommended "did not materialize" at the time.
Foster Farms declined to provide any details to the Los Angeles Times of the latest COVID-19 fatality at its Fresno plant, but said it was "saddened by the death."
The company told CBS News in the autumn that "employee health and welfare has always been Foster Farms' highest priority."
CBS News consumer investigative correspondent Anna Werner said that by late August, with eight deaths and over 350 confirmed cases at the Livingston plant, county health officials told Foster Farms it would.
That's when Nanyonjo-Kemp said she suddenly found herself in communication with federal agencies. One, she said, mentioned the Defense Production Act, part of President Donald Trump's executive order to keep food plants running. (See Warner's full report in the video player at the top of this article.)
Asked if anyone was suggesting to her that they couldn't shut down the plant, Nanyonjo-Kemp said, "Yes. I'll be forthcoming. Yes."
She said the federal government agency was "trying to intimidate. We refused to be intimidated."
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