Fresno County health officials are disputing charges that they tipped off a large poultry processing plant about a surprise inspection following outbreaks of COVID-19 at the site.
Members of the California Latino Legislative Caucus believe Fresno County Department of Public Health employees alerted Foster Farms ahead of a Cal/OSHA health and safety inspection. The group has sent a letter to Governor Gavin Newsom pressing for an investigation.
On Friday, Fresno County Health Director David Pomaville strongly denied anything nefarious occurred.
Not an Unannounced Inspection, County Says
“I want to vehemently oppose that today,” said Pomaville during a health department briefing with reporters. “Our purpose and involvement in COVID-19 response has been to protect employees and to protect the residents of Fresno County during very difficult times.”
Pomaville says the visit was never intended to be a surprise inspection.
“This was an ongoing dialog that we had with Foster Farms, and we pre-arranged that inspection,” explained Pomaville. He said Foster Farms knew health officials were coming to ensure the right company representatives were there and that adequate space was available to carry out the activities the county needed to do, as well as to ensure the safety of the team of county employees.
“There are times when we will do unannounced inspections. This was not one of them,” said Pomaville. “We had done an unannounced inspection at the facility prior to that.”
“There are times when we will do unannounced inspections. This was not one of them.”–Fresno County Health Director David Pomaville
Fresno County Supervisor Nathan Magsig also addressed the issue during a separate Facebook Live briefing.
“To be clear, this was a meeting that Fresno County had set up with Foster Farms,” said Magsig. “We — the county — let Cal/OSHA know if they wanted to come with us they were more than welcome. Also, Cal/OSHA, their local officials that we were talking to, knew that this was a pre-arranged meeting. So right off the bat the characterization that we undermined a Cal/OSHA inspection is wrong.”
The Latino Caucus pointed to reporting by The Fresno Bee, which cited emails obtained through a Public Records Act request. The Bee reported that in December, during a massive COVID-19 outbreak at the Foster Farms plant in southeast Fresno, health officials advised Foster Farms about a Cal/OSHA inspection, coordinated their media strategy during the crisis, and intentionally withheld information from the public about the outbreak and their investigation.
“Recent reporting of Cal/OSHA providing advance notice to Foster Farms of what was meant to be a surprise inspection of a site with 22 confirmed COVID-19 cases is egregious, needs to be investigated, and if found to be true and accurate, must have consequences,” said Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo, D-Los Angeles, during a virtual press conference Thursday.
Inspection in Question
The Fresno County Health Department says they were actually the ones that informed Cal/OSHA about a COVID-19 outbreak that had been detected in November 2020 after receiving calls from the public and the state attorney general’s office.
When the county reached out to Cal-OSHA to report the situation, the county was informed that the situation would be placed on a list, officials said.
The county says, in response and wanting immediate action taken, it was decided to visit the plant to examine the company’s COVID-19 practices. The day before the visit, the health department got a call from Cal/OSHA. In that call, the county says Cal/OSHA officials asked to “piggyback” on the pre-arranged visit. “This was not a Cal/OSHA inspection but rather they were accompanying the Public Health department,” said the county in a statement.
The Latino Caucus says at least five people who worked at the plant died from COVID-19, and more than 20 people who worked at the plant were hospitalized due to infections.
“If a county public health department is more concerned about helping a business owner rather than safeguarding the health and well-being of people who work for that business, what are we to think?,” said Assemblyman Dr. Joaquin Arambula, D-Fresno. “It raises questions about whether components of the Fresno health safety system have been compromised and possibly with a bias toward employers. We need to know if this was a single incident, or an indication of something more wide spread.”
“It raises questions about whether components of the Fresno health safety system have been compromised and possibly with a bias toward employers. We need to know if this was a single incident, or an indication of something more wide spread.”–Assemblyman Dr. Joaquin Arambula, D-Fresno
Talking Points Allegation
“There is a second allegation that we coached the facility on talking points,” said Pomaville. “I think that if coaching is communicating, then we did it because we communicated with a lot of facilities.”
The county says public health worked collaboratively with employers to provide the latest guidance and best practices, which were changing frequently.
“The suggestion that we tried to spin the public relations information is incorrect,” said Pomaville.
State Sen. Lena Gonzalez, D-Long Beach, says she stands with her colleagues in the Latino Caucus to demand accountability from the Fresno County Health Department.
“There should be no collusion and coordination between businesses and public health entities, as it greatly undermines public confidence in government when communities should be able to trust that public health entities will do what is right, that they will defend above all, the health and safety of workers at their place of employment,” said Gonzalez.
Withheld Information From Public & Issued No Corrective Actions
The County Health Department doesn’t dispute the claims by the Latino Caucus they withheld information from the public, and issued no corrective actions. But, Pomaville says there’s a reason for both.
“There was information that was not disclosed that the department of public health has for privacy reasons, and also to work with employers to be able to work cooperatively with them,” said Pomaville. The county issued a statement saying the health department is bound by law to not release certain information regarding communicable diseases.
As for not issuing corrective actions, the county says that during both its visits, the facility appeared to be in compliance with state COVID Industry Guidelines. Additionally, the county says employers like Foster Farms have other entities that regulate their activities and ensure compliance such as Cal/OSHA, the California Department of Food & Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“The the general conclusion was that they were following those guidelines as best practices within that facility,” explained Pomaville.
But Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo, D-Los Angeles, says The Bee’s reporting, if found to be true and accurate must have consequences.
“For Cal/OSHA to trust that employers are always going to do what’s best when evidence emerges that suggests they are breaking the law – and proactively hiding cases of COVID-19 exposure and spread – is unacceptable,” said Carrillo.