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Smithfield Asks Court to Keep OSHA From South Dakota Virus Data

July 2, 2020, 4:12 PM

Smithfield Packaged Meats Corp. has asked a U.S. court to keep OSHA from obtaining documents related to employee reports of illness, Covid-19 test results, and interviews with its South Dakota plant workers.

The company said its employees “have legitimate privacy interests in this information.” Its motion to quash an Occupational Safety and Health Administration subpoena was filed in a South Dakota federal court on Wednesday.

OSHA served its subpoena on the South Dakota Department of Health on June 23, seeking records related to a Covid-19 outbreak at Smithfield’s Sioux Falls facility, which temporarily closed for more than three weeks after hundreds of workers tested positive for the virus.

The agency wants to see statistical data on potential Covid-19 clusters, recommendations from the Department of Health issued to Smithfield, as well as interviews with workers, among other items.

With their tightly packed production lines, U.S. meatpacking plants have become highly localized coronavirus hotspots. Smithfield in May won dismissal of a Missouri federal court lawsuit over worker safety, with a judge concluding then that OSHA has primary jurisdiction over the regulatory environment in which such facilities operate during the pandemic.

Now Smithfield is challenging OSHA’s oversight ability.

“The Subpoena raises significant public policy implications relevant to the nation’s ongoing response to the novel COVID-19 virus and, if enforced without limitation or procedural safeguards, will undoubtedly chill critical collaborations between essential employers and public health agencies going forward,” according to the company’s court filing.

Smithfield’s Sioux Falls plant is one of the largest pork processing facilities in the country, representing 4% to 5% of U.S. pork production, according to the company website. It employs 3,700 workers. Hundreds of workers were infected in April, Bloomberg News reported. The company is owned by the Hong Kong-based WH Group Ltd.

A representative from Smithfield didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

OSHA initiated its investigation of the plant April 20.

The case is Smithfield v. OSHA, D.S.D., No. 4:20-mc-18, 7/1/20

To contact the reporter on this story: Fatima Hussein in Washington at fhussein@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com; Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com

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