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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Heartland Co-Op apologizes after anti-Asian message remained visible on website for days

A Heartland Co-op grain elevator near Des Moines. Photo: Flickr user photolibrarian.

“Kung flu the cough that kills.” For at least three days this message — posted by an employee of Heartland Co-op — sat at the top of a listing for closing grain prices, a resource accessible to the Co-op’s 5,800 statewide members and the general public. It has since been removed.

Heartland Co-op, which operates 71 locations statewide, helps Iowa farmers grow and sell grain and other farm products. Its price listings for resources like grain products and animal feed help farmers stay informed about the state of the agricultural business.

The phrase “kung-flu” was popularized after a White House aide allegedly referred to COVID-19 as such to CBS News reporter Weijia Jiang.

“We apologize if it offended anyone,” Todd Phillips, vice president of grain and risk management, said. “We did have an employee who used poor judgement in posting an inappropriate comment on our website. That comment was removed as soon as it was brought to my attention.”

Staff were made aware of the message only after being contacted by The S&B. Administrative Assistant Michelle Buboltz dismissed the existence of the message as “most likely false” in an initial email.

This screenshot was captured on March 27, 2020.

Formed in 1987, Heartland Co-op has consolidated a variety of smaller facilities through mergers and acquisitions. That leaves members concerned about the anti-Asian message, like John Clayton of Broad View Wildflower Seed, without a way to take their business elsewhere.

“I have no choice. … They’re a monopoly. They’re an oligopoly,” he said. “There’s only a few big buyers now, and they’re one of them. If they continued to post that sort of thing, I could raise a stink about it, but I’d still have to do business with them. It’s not like we could boycott them.”

Although Heartland is aware of the identity of the employee responsible, Phillips declined to say specifically if they would face any repercussions for posting the message.

“When the CEO says that wasn’t us, that was our employee, … well, but it was your website. They really need to talk to that employee, because that’s the face of the corporation right there,” Clayton said.

President Donald Trump, who has not used the phrase “kung-flu” himself, often referred to COVID-19 as “the Chinese virus” but stopped amid backlash. “It is very important that we totally protect our Asian American community in the United States and all around the world,” he later tweeted. “They are amazing people, and the spreading of the Virus is NOT their fault in any way, shape, or form.”

Discrimination and bias incidents against Asian Americans have markedly increased. As of March 27, Asian Americans self-reported over 750 incidents of coronavirus discrimination in the United States. And a San Francisco State University report found a 50 percent rise in news articles related to anti-Asian sentiments and COVID-19 between February 9 and March 7.

Grinnell College, which has shut down its campus and shifted to remote learning because of COVID-19, has also been host to anti-Asian bias incidents: its Chinese Student Association reported that a message reading “Fuck Wuhan save USA” was posted on a whiteboard in a student dormitory, and Chief Diversity Officer Lakesia Johnson confirmed in an email that Asian students have been subject to several hate incidents both on campus and in the city of Grinnell.

Robert Redfield, Director of the Centers for Disease Control, has said that it is “absolutely wrong and inappropriate” to use phrasing which ties Asian Americans to the coronavirus. The World Health Organization has cautioned against naming infectious diseases after a geographic region or country for fear of creating unwarranted stigma.

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