Foster Farms tipped in advance of COVID-19 state inspection of Fresno plant, emails show

Coronavirus

FRESNO, Calif. (KGPE) – There are new claims that Fresno County health officials tipped off Foster Farms before Cal/OSHA showed up to inspect the southeast Fresno plant.

The Fresno Bee first broke this story.

Councilmember Miguel Arias says the revelation is damaging public trust at a critical time. Arias tells us he has read emails obtained by the Fresno Bee through a public records request.

He says those emails confirm a Fresno County health inspector tipped off Foster Farms.

“Long-term there is going to be a cost of a reduction in trust that the public has with these employers and institutions,” Councilmember Miguel Arias said.

A COVID-19 outbreak at the plant on South Cherry has been linked to five deaths.

“The biggest consequence of the [Fresno] County Health Department is the reduction of trust between the public and the county on them providing transparent outbreak information for everyone impacted by it,” said Arias.

The e-mails reportedly gave Foster Farms “talking points for dealing with the media” and “holding back information.”

“What I saw from the emails I reviewed last week was the county was more than monitoring the situation but actually helping to guide the communication, limiting the information to the public and employees about the outbreak of the infection,” Arias said.

Arias says residents brought complaints of Foster Farms to several council members and they relied on Fresno County to deal with the situation.

“We entrusted the County Health Department with this work.”

But Arias says the county’s actions are “disingenuous.”

He compares their lack of action with Foster Farms to their fast action in shutting down Fulton Street Coffee.

“Just last week they shut down a downtown coffee shop for their water not being hot enough, and to me, they failed to do that enforcement work with one of the largest employers in the city that had thousands of workers under one roof,” Arias said.

Arias says the emails cast doubt on the county’s handling of the outbreak at the facility.

“Quite frankly, when the county was in a position of helping the employer, instead of in my view, the responsibility is protecting the employees,” Arias said.

The Fresno County Health Department gave us this statement in response:

The Fresno County Department of Public Health (FCDPH) has been working with many local businesses to help ensure COVID-19 public health prevention measures are in place.

In December of 2020, the department visited the Foster Farms site and provided the management team with advance notice to ensure that the proper representatives were on-site to discuss ongoing health protection programs in place at the facility. This was part of continuous communication with foster farms and other large food processors that began early in the pandemic response.

The FCDPH does conduct unannounced inspections as part of its regulatory oversight of businesses it regulates, however, at times it is prudent to have a prearranged visit to ensure company experts can provide complete information about program implementation.

The Vice President of communications for Foster Farms told Eyewitness News that he would not go into detail, but says the news story seems to imply collusion between Foster Farms and the Fresno County Health Department. He says that is not the case.

For the record, OSHA contacted us in advance, it [the December inspection] was a scheduled meeting.

But a statement from Cal/OSHA officials reveals that they are unaware of the allegations – and that they generally do not provide advance notice of inspections.

We were not aware that the Fresno County health official had given advance notice to the employer prior to Cal/OSHA’s December 9 visit to the Foster Farms Fresno facility located at 2960 South Cherry Avenue.

Cal/OSHA’s policy is generally not to give advance notice to employers on worksite inspections. Cal/OSHA is authorized to provide advance notice of an inspection to other regulatory and law enforcement agencies when coordination with those agencies is necessary to enable a more thorough or effective inspection, with the expectation that the coordinating agencies will keep that information confidential.

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