Editor’s note: Story update with comments from Gov. Asa Hutchinson and the Arkansas Department of Health.
An error in where COVID-19 cases are located by the Arkansas Department of Health resulted in Fort Smith-based OK Foods losing its export business with China, the company has alleged.
Chinese officials suspended chicken imports from OK Foods beginning Sept. 13, with the move made based on ADH reports of 234 workers in a Fort Smith plant testing positive for COVID-19 in late August. The USA Poultry & Egg Council said the ban is part of China’s program to prevent the spread of COVID-19 by freezing imports from foreign countries. Council President Jim Sumner said the ban was unjustified as the virus cannot be transmitted to humans through poultry meat.
However, OK Foods said there were only 60 active cases among the 774 employees in the Fort Smith processing plant. The company also said it contacted Gov. Asa Hutchinson and ADH officials about the error, and have been told state officials will work to correct the numbers and help the company regain its export business to China.
Following is part of a letter obtained by Talk Business & Politics that OK Foods sent from CEO Trent Goins on Thursday (Sept. 17) to the company’s customers.
“We just learned that China has suspended imports, or ‘delisted’ products, from one of our OK Foods poultry plants in Fort Smith, Arkansas, because of erroneous reporting published by the Arkansas Department of Health. These reports, which have been publicly available on a weekly basis since May 29, incorrectly inflated the number of active COVID-19 cases within one of our Fort Smith processing plants. Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson and the Arkansas Department of Health staff have corrected the incorrect data and are working with OK Foods to begin the process of relisting.
“We have 0 active cases of COVID-19 with employees working at the facility in question today. In all transparency, we have had 60 active cases out of 774 employees since March in the affected plant. Additionally, OK Foods is currently in the bottom five percent of poultry plants in Arkansas reported COVID-19 cases.
“We appreciate Gov. Hutchinson and his staff, the Department of Health, the Poultry Federation, and the Arkansas Department of Agriculture for their efforts to quickly correct the data. Together, we are working on a strategy to relist the company and resume exporting to China.”
A spokesman for OK Foods said the company will not comment beyond what is in the letter to customers.
A statement from Gov. Hutchinson sent to Talk Business & Politics places the blame on China.
“It appears that China added the case numbers for three OK Foods facilities and assigned them to one facility. The Department of Health is working to revise the reports to address this problem. OK Foods has been a leader in the poultry industry in making its plants safe for the workers and in assuring that all Department of Health guidelines are followed. My office, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health are working to help OK Foods in overcoming this obstacle in exporting product to China.”
However, an ADH statement admits that the department did not correctly identify where the COVID cases were located.
The ADH provided this statement to Talk Business & Politics: “ADH COVID-19 case reports are used to assist with agency response to the pandemic and to communicate with the public. Although all efforts are made for accuracy, the data contained in the reports are provisional, subject to change, and only updated when a new report is issued. In early September, it was brought to our attention that O.K. Foods had three separate processing facilities at one location. Until then, ADH had been attributing all O.K. Foods COVID-19 cases to one facility. On September 2, 2020, ADH correctly allocated O.K. Food COVID-19 cases to the appropriate facility to which they belonged. This reduced the number of cases that had been attributed to the single facility.”