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Report says COVID cases at Rochelle Foods kept from public, plant says they followed protocol

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ROCHELLE (WREX) — Rochelle Foods made national headlines on Monday after a scathing report said the plant lacked transparency in reporting COVID-19 infections. 13 News spoke to the journalists who published the story and officials from the city and the plant to get answers.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Rochelle Foods insisted it's put workers first.

"Making PPE available, breaking up the lunch rooms, making sure we're properly zoning, and making sure we we're getting social distancing with people" were just of the protocols Richard Carlson, the Vice President of Quality Management for Hormel Foods said when asked what the company has done to keep employees safe.

In fact, Carlson said the company has spent around $80 million to do so, with a few million going to the Rochelle plant.

But a newly released report in USA Today said the plant hasn't been transparent in reporting infections. Four journalists, who worked on the story, have been tracking outbreaks at meatpacking companies across the country.

"Places like Rochelle Foods, they had reported 24 cases of COVID publicly, in reality, it was more like 130 or higher," Derek Kravitz of the Brown Institute for Media Innovation explained.

The USA Today article said an executive order from President Trump was used by the USDA to keep food processing plants, like Rochelle Foods, operating. The Ogle County Health Director, Kyle Auman, is quoted as saying, "They were using the act to keep people working, not to protect public health.”

13 News was unable to reach Auman for comment.

"The county health department wanted to put out a press release stating that there would be testing at Rochelle Foods, and Rochelle Foods convinced them not to do it out of bad publicity," Madison McVan of The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting added.

Rochelle Foods officials said it reported all the cases to the Ogle County Health Department and employees at the plant, plus it interviewed everyone who tested positive.

The company said, so far, approximately 200 workers have tested positive and one died.

"I'm not certain what additional degree of transparency would be required when we were doing everything that was asked of us," Carlson said.

Jeff Fiegenschuh, Rochelle's City Manager, agreed, saying the plant tried its hardest to contain the spread and was compliant in all the meetings he sat in on.

"Our job is to work to try to keep the public safe, no doubt about it, but we don't have a public health department, so that's why we have to work closely with and support the Ogle County Health Department, but we also have to be cognizant that Rochelle Foods has been a good corporate citizen and they're our largest employer," Fiegenschuh said.

Around 900 people work at the plant.

Carlson said the plant is encouraging all workers to get the vaccine as part of the company's COVID-19 education plan, KEEP COVID OUT! He hopes to put the virus, and outbreaks, behind it.

One thing the four journalists said was important, in their report, they said Auman was pressured by USDA officials to keep the plant open despite the rise in cases. They said this is the first time a health director has admitted to that pressure from federal officials.

Georgia Gee with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism said the goal of the report is to "shed light on county health departments on how they react to this and making more data public."

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Richard Bodee

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