Emails show Tyson's sway over Arkansas mayor during COVID surge in plants

From left to right, Springdale Mayor Doug Sprouse, Rogers Mayor Greg Hines, and Tyson CEO Dean Banks participate in a moment of silence during a tour of safety measures at a Tyson plant in Rogers, Arkansas. on June 9, 2020. (Photo obtained via public records request to the City of Springdale.) 

Late last May, as a flood of reports about COVID-19 outbreaks at meat and poultry processing facilities began to hit national news, Mayor Doug Sprouse of Springdale, Arkansas, received a request from CNN to appear on Wolf Blitzer's evening show. Noting that, at the time, the Fayetteville-Springdale metro area led the nation in COVID-19 case growth rate, the producer invited Sprouse on the show to "discuss how you're keeping people safe."

Sprouse reached out to Jeff Wood, the director of state and local government affairs at Tyson Foods, which is headquartered in Springdale and operates two large poultry processing plants in the Northwest Arkansas city, for his thoughts on the potential appearance. Wood in turn consulted Tyson's public relations department and sent Sprouse advice in an email, which Facing South obtained via a public records request.

"Another mayor in North Carolina was set to go on CNN recently. They asked him some test questions right before he went on, and because he was so positive they canceled his interview," Wood wrote. "You might want to think about asking if you're the only one being interviewed, or if there are others added to your segment."  

Wood also warned that CNN might put Sprouse alongside local organizer Magaly Licolli of the workers' justice group Venceremos. She had been in the media spotlight as the organization warned from the pandemic's early stages that poultry plants were prime spots for an outbreak. Arkansas is the second-largest poultry producing state in the country, and Tyson is the largest poultry company in the state.

Wood referred to Licolli as a "radical union organizer." "She has been calling national media lately to try to create drama and controversial footage," he wrote. "She has no interest in facts and will just shout and make baseless accusations." He also included talking points about worker safety and a promotional video of the safety measures Tyson had implemented at one of the city's plants. 

The exchange between Sprouse and Wood was indicative of the narrative Tyson Foods attempted to tell even as COVID-19 cases surged in its facilities, and the extent to which some local officials in Northwest Arkansas have worked closely with the company even amid the pandemic.

"It's really concerning to see how these companies are trying to portray me as the bad figure when we were actually just fighting for basic human rights," Licolli told Facing South. "They are trying to portray me as if I am this disruptor of the community — and if they're doing that to me imagine what they do to workers who speak up."

Licolli also said that, despite Wood's claims, Venceremos is not trying to unionize Tyson plants. "We want that Tyson takes responsibility as a brand, and as a company, to put in place programs that are worker-driven solutions," she said.

When asked whether Tyson stood by the characterization of Licolli in Wood's email, Tyson spokesperson Derek Burleson told Facing South, "We've met with Ms. Licolli in the past and are concerned that she is sharing inaccurate assertions on health and safety issues involving the industry." Sprouse did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

As COVID-19 spread through Tyson's plants in Northwest Arkansas and around the country, Wood and Tyson's public relations team, along with the global strategic communications firm Finsbury, were working with local officials to burnish the company's image. The company put out 13 press releases with results of mass testing events in some of its facilities throughout May and June. Nine of them included comments from local public health or government officials; in two cases, public health departments partnered with Tyson on mass testing events.

Test results from the company's Northwest Arkansas facilities were released in mid-June. As Facing South reported last August, Tyson drafted comments that were attributed to Rogers Mayor Greg Hines in a release announcing that mass testing had found that more than 30% of workers at a Tyson plant in the city had tested positive.

Emails obtained by Facing South show that comments attributed to Springdale Mayor Doug Sprouse in a similar release were also written by Tyson's public relations team — which at that point included representatives from Finsbury. Liz Micci, a partner at the firm whose company page says she provides communications counsel to companies in "complex moments and times of transition," drafted the quote and sent it to Tyson's public relations team, who sent it to Sprouse for his approval. Tyson spokesperson Burleson told Facing South that "the quote was drafted from supportive words the Mayor used in conversations with Tyson representatives, media and others regarding the company's efforts to keep its team members safe." 

The quote appeared in Tyson's June 11 press release announcing that 247 of the company's employees at the Springdale Berry Street facility — 22% of all 1,102 employees at the plant — had tested positive for the virus in testing conducted by either Tyson or the Arkansas Department of Health. Attributed to Sprouse, the quote stated, "Tyson Foods has been part of the fabric of Arkansas since 1935, and we are grateful they have taken the proactive step of conducting testing in the Northwest region and disclosing the results. We are proud to collaborate with Tyson, and their leadership will help us better understand the impact of COVID-19 in our community and how best to protect the residents of Benton and Washington counties."

The Berry Street plant has had at least 416 positive cases since the start of the pandemic, according to an ongoing tracker kept by the Food and Environment Reporting Network. 

In Northwest Arkansas, Tyson's processing facility workforce is largely composed of Latinx and Marshallese immigrants — people for whom English is often a second language, or who don't speak it at all. Many moved to the region specifically to work for poultry companies. The pandemic has hit these communities particularly hard, as Facing South has reported.

As cases skyrocketed and media reports highlighted worker deaths in Tyson and other meatpacking facilities across the country, Tyson pulled together tours of its facilities for local elected and public health officials, certain media outlets, and groups including the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), a national civil and social rights organization. Tyson spokesperson Burleson pointed to LULAC's visit and the organization's statement that the company had "made significant strides" in protecting its workforce.

"They brought the mayor to speak good about Tyson, they brought LULAC. In the middle of all our actions, they were using these figures in the community to send a message to others who obviously don't know much about what's going on inside the plants," Licolli said. "Our voice was stronger, because workers were speaking up."

Tyson told Facing South that the local officials invited on tours had "individually expressed interest in touring our facilities and seeing the measures in place to protect our team members." In a June 5 email scheduling a tour the following week, Wood wrote to mayors Sprouse and Hines: "We appreciate your interest and would especially like for you to get through soon because of all the testing that's going on and will create news."

Tyson later used photos and videos of plant tours, including the one attended by Sprouse and Hines, to promote the safety and cleanliness of their facilities.

Sprouse also filmed promotional videos for Tyson, posted to Tyson's blog the week that testing results in Tyson's northwest Arkansas plants were released, in which he deflected growing concerns that the virus was being spread in the facilities.

"The things they're learning at work, and practicing at work, if we can continue to take that into the community, then it's certainly going to reduce the spread," he said in one. "What we're finding out is that much more often than not this is being spread when they're not at work, when employees are not at work," Sprouse said in another.

However, when a team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention visited Northwest Arkansas in June and July to assess COVID-19's spread in Benton and Washington counties' Hispanic and Marshallese communities, they came to a different conclusion.

Early in the outbreak, and into June, the CDC team found that rapid spread of the virus in the region's Hispanic and Marshallese population appeared to occur in large part at poultry processing facilities. Community and household spread occurred at a slower rate in the early part of the outbreak, according to the team's findings. By early June, the CDC team found, there seemed to be "substantial overlap" of spread happening in the workplace, households, and the community. It noted that, given how many people in the region work in poultry processing facilities, it was "very difficult to disentangle" workplace spread from community spread.

The CDC team found that, among Northwest Arkansas' Hispanic and Marshallese populations, one-third of all COVID-19 cases the team studied among people older than 18 worked in poultry processing plants, and 40% of the cases the CDC believed to have been the first case in a household-wide outbreak were in poultry plant employees.

Neither Tyson nor Sprouse responded to questions about what evidence they had seen to make them believe community spread was more serious than workplace spread.

Sprouse appeared to be looking out for the company, too: When a local resident alerted Sprouse that Venceremos was planning a march for human rights for poultry workers at Tyson and George's, another major poultry producer in the region, Sprouse forwarded the resident's message to Wood, alerting him of the planned protest. At Wood's request, Sprouse forwarded the eventual permit the marchers obtained from the city to him.

"Here's what was approved," Sprouse wrote. "They've worked with [Springdale Police] Chief Peters very well to address our concerns."

To Licolli, seeing evidence that the mayor has worked so closely with Tyson to advance the company's interests is disappointing.

"The question is, who is he working for?" she asked, noting that the workers at poultry plants are also Sprouse's constituents. "These [workers] are not just disposable or expendable. These people have lives, these people are part of the community."

This story has been updated to include Tyson's statement on quotes attributed to Doug Sprouse in a June press release.