Plus: Dave Dickey on incoming USDA Secretary Vilsack
This week the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting is sending this newsletter early, out of deference to the presidential inauguration set to take place Wednesday. With continued uncertainty surrounding demonstrations at both the country and state capital buildings, our thoughts continue to be with you and our colleagues reporting in the field. Stay safe.
By Derek Kravitz, Brown Institute for Media Innovation; Georgia Gee, Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism, Columbia Journalism School; Madison McVan, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting; and Ignacio Calderon, USA TODAY Network Agriculture Data Fellow January 18, 2021
On May 1, after testing found at least 123 COVID-19 cases out of 900 workers at the Rochelle Foods plant in northern Illinois, Kyle Auman, the Ogle County Health Department director, was summoned to a conference call.
On the emailed invite: six Trump administration political appointees at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, one infectious disease expert at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, several top officials at the Illinois Department of Public Health and the governor’s office – as well as lawyers and executives from Rochelle Foods.
At the time, Rochelle Foods, a subsidiary of Hormel that produces deli meats and bacon, had been shut for more than a week by Auman’s health department. Although CDC guidelines for essential workers included masks and social distancing, and cases at the plant were increasing, some workers were “still figuring out how to wear them,” Auman said
To Auman, Rochelle Foods had already become a source of COVID-19 infections, at least to plant workers and their families. To date, three employees have been hospitalized and another has died after contracting the virus.
But on the conference call, the USDA staffers told Auman he had no authority to investigate or keep plants like Rochelle closed. They cited President Donald Trump’s April 28 executive order invoking the Defense Production Act to keep food-processing facilities operating despite mounting reports of worker infections and deaths.
“We essentially had to leave Rochelle Foods alone,” Auman said in an interview. “They were using the act to keep people working, not to protect public health.”
After the conference call, Auman said, he felt “very manipulated.”
By Dave Dickey, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting
Big Ag must have breathed a huge collective sigh of relief when President-elect Joe Biden tapped Tom Vilsack to be secretary of USDA. For Big Ag, Vilsack is like your grandfather's favorite slippers – comfortable, cuddly, warm and dependable.
Former Iowa Governor Vilsack served eight years as USDA chief under Barack Obama with Biden as VP. Biden could have selected Democrat progressive hopeful Ohio Representative Marcia Fudge who would have possibly bridged the gulf between rural and urban communities and done something about USDA's long history of racial discrimination.
Instead, the nation gets Vilsack and his long, long, long record of toady-in-chief for corporate agricultural interests. Vilsack was all talk and no action when it came to representing small farms in his first go-round with USDA.