Foster Farms spokespeople have ignored repeated inquiries from KQED.
Ira Brill, Foster Farms vice president of communications, replied to all recipients of an email with questions about outbreaks at the company's Central Valley facilities Tuesday afternoon with three words: “Continue to ignore.”
County health officials plan to monitor the case counts and conduct other surveillance of the plants this week to verify practices are being implemented to identify infections early.
“It’s one thing to have the manual on the shelf that says what you’re going to do, and it’s another thing to implement it,” Pomaville said. “We need to see that the practices are being implemented, and that’s where we have our staff periodically go to facilities and ground truth or validate that things are actually happening.”
Late last week, the Fresno Bee reported that the company planned to close its S. Cherry Avenue plant over the weekend for cleaning, citing a company news release Foster Farms did not provide to KQED, despite repeated requests.
“They put extra cleaning protocols in place and I’m not sure when that happened or what duration that was,” Pomaville said. “And I’m not sure that they suspended all operations during that time, but they did take additional steps to sanitize the facility.”
Jacques Loveall, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union local (UFCW 8-Golden State), which represents workers at one of the plants in Fresno currently experiencing an outbreak, said the union is “deeply concerned for the safety of our members” and is “monitoring the situation.”
Loveall also said that Foster Farms is trying to limit the union’s access to the plant.
“This policy, if it is allowed to go in effect, would prevent our representatives from monitoring line speeds and other conditions at the facility that could put these front-line workers in further danger,” Loveall said in an emailed statement.
Foster Farms’ Livingston facility was recently added to the Merced County Department of Public Health’s list of outbreaks, again. The Livingston facility was the site of a major COVID-19 outbreak over the summer in which at least 392 workers were infected and nine died from complications due to COVID-19.
The earlier outbreak prompted Merced County health officials, backed by the state, to close the plant temporarily. An initial health order issued on Aug. 26 mandated the company close its Livingston complex until it was safe to reopen.
The state defines an outbreak in a congregate employment setting as three or more confirmed cases of COVID-19 that are not linked to exposure outside of the workplace, according to the Merced County health order.
At the time, Merced County health officials said the number of known cases in the outbreak were largely based on employees choosing to test and voluntarily reporting to Foster Farms, and that “the true spread of COVID-19 in the Foster Farms Livingston facility remains unknown.”
The Merced County Department of Public Health issued a revised health order on Aug. 28 closing certain areas of the facility for six days.
The plant was cleared from outbreak status shortly thereafter.
Ana Padilla, executive director of UC Merced’s Community and Labor Center, said it's unclear what changes Foster Farms made after that outbreak.
“Why there’s a new outbreak after apparently getting things under control is something that is of concern,” Padilla said.