Smithfield drops fight over South Dakota COVID-19 outbreak reports
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Smithfield Foods has ended its fight to keep federal safety officials from accessing reports produced by the South Dakota Department of Health about the COVID-19 outbreak at the company’s meat processing plant in Sioux Falls.
The company has reached an agreement with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that will get the agency the reports it wants, but with some information likely not included, according to a Smithfield executive and court filings.
“Private employee medical and confidential business information will be protected from disclosure to the public and/or will not be made available to our competitors,” said Keira Lombardo, executive vice president of corporate affairs and compliance at Smithfield, in an emailed statement.
Smithfield had filed suit in U.S. District Court in South Dakota last month, seeking to quash the late-June OSHA subpoena of records from the state Department of Health.
The federal agency was seeking a broad array of information from the department, including Smithfield employee illness reports, interviews with plant workers and managers and recommendations state officials may have made to the company.
The company dropped the suit on July 29. The agreement allowed OSHA to get the information it sought, based on an emailed statement from Ron Parsons, U.S. attorney for the District of South Dakota.
“The South Dakota Department of Health fully complied with the subpoena issued to it by OSHA and the United States,” Parsons said.
Lombardo said Smithfield was simply trying to make sure it could review, flag and potentially limit the dissemination of confidential information.
“Our employees in Sioux Falls have already experienced discrimination in the community amid the pandemic, and we take our responsibility to protect their private health information seriously,” Lombardo said.
The company’s Sioux Falls pork plant, which employs about 3,500 people, was host to a COVID-19 outbreak in April and May that was eventually linked to hundreds of cases among its workers and their family members. Two plant workers died from COVID-19.
The Virginia-based company shuttered the plant for several weeks in April and May after pressure from state and local officials, but re-opened it after a team from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention visited the site and made recommendations about how Smithfield could improve worker safety there.
The U.S. Department of Labor confirmed in May that OSHA had launched an investigation into conditions at the plant after employees told them of safety concerns. That investigation continues.