Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting fills rural watchdog role

Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting editor Brant Houston works at his office at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. (Debbie-Marie Brown/MEDILL)

By Debbie-Marie Brown and Saeed Ba Abdullah
Medill Reports

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, meatpacking plants across the Midwest have been hotspots for the spread of the coronavirus among their workers. According to the Midwest Center of Investigative Reporting — which began tracking these cases in April 2020 — the number of COVID-19 cases at these plants exceeded 50,000, with the death toll surpassing 250. These plants have remained silent regarding COVID-19 cases among their workers, who have been forced to work without safety protocols in order to keep production lines running. One of those plants caught in the crossfire is Rantoul Foods, which produces pork meat in Rantoul, Ill.

The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting was founded in 2009, and its mission is focused on invigorating the Midwest with better agribusiness reporting. The center is 30 minutes from Rantoul, and its investigative team was able to track and verify the presence of COVID-19 cases among Rantoul Foods’ workers. A number of interviews with sources from inside the plant confirmed the poor working conditions, prompting the center to publish stories about COVID-19 infection among meatpacking workers. These reports brought pressure upon Rantoul Foods to admit the number of cases within the plant, which led the plant to establish a checkpoint to ensure worker safety and the absence of COVID-19 symptoms. The Champaign-Urbana Public Health District now also maintains a working relationship with the Rantoul pork plant, when previously, they knew nothing of what occurred inside.

The infection numbers of these plants have decreased from 2020 due to increased efforts to protect workers. However, the pandemic remains virulent among meatpacking plants, with more than 200 cases reported in North Carolina and one death recorded in March, according to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. Although President Joe Biden’s administration promised to impose stricter standards than those used in the previous administration, these standards have not yet been implemented. Nonetheless, the Midwest Center continues to follow this and other matters, like pesticides and animal control.

Saeed Abdullah is a graduate student at Medill, and he specializes in video and broadcasting; you can follow him on Twitter @SA_Baabdullah. Debbie-Marie Brown is a graduate student at Medill.