Large meat manufacturers promoted “baseless” fears they knew were “flimsy or outright false” that shutting down meatpacking plants would cause a food shortage, in order to keep workers on the job during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a report published Thursday by the House committee investigating the federal government’s coronavirus response.
Additionally, the legal department of Tyson Foods, one of the largest meat producers in the U.S., drafted the basis for what became an executive order shielding meat companies from state and local regulations and potential lawsuits from workers and families of workers who got sick, the report said.
The report said that Smithfield and Tyson “engaged in constant communications” with Trump appointees at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the White House, including White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Marc Short, Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff. Then-President Donald Trump’s executive order, issued in late April 2020, invoked the Defense Production Act to keep meat production plants open.
“Meatpacking companies knew the risk posed by the coronavirus to their workers and knew it wasn’t a risk that the country needed them to take,” the report said. “They nonetheless lobbied aggressively—successfully enlisting USDA as a close collaborator in their efforts—to keep workers on the job in unsafe conditions, to ensure state and local health authorities were powerless to mandate otherwise, and to be protected against legal liability for the harms that would result.”
After an outbreak at a Smithfield plant in South Dakota resulted in more than 300 infections and briefly shut down production, Smithfield CEO Ken Sullivan said the closures were “pushing our country perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply.”
But emails between officials at the North American Meat Institute, an industry group, said that Smithfield “wanted us to issue a statement that there was plenty of meat, enough that it was for them to export,” and that Sullivan was “directing the panic.”
The report also alleged that executives for at least one large meat producer knew about the high rate of transmission in meatpacking plants. In April 2020, a doctor at a hospital near a JBS Foods beef plant in Texas emailed JBS Foods’ head of corporate affairs saying that “100 percent” of patients at the time were either JBS employees or employees’ family members, and that “your employees will get sick and may die if this factory continues to be open.”
“In 2020, as the world faced the challenge of navigating COVID-19, many lessons were learned and the health and safety of our team members guided all our actions and decisions,” a JBS spokesperson told VICE News in an email. “During that critical time, we did everything possible to ensure the safety of our people who kept our critical food supply chain running.”
“Over the past two years, our company has been contacted by, received direction from, and collaborated with many different federal, state and local officials – including both the Trump and Biden Administrations – as we’ve navigated the challenges of the pandemic,” Tyson Foods spokesperson Gary Mickelson said in a statement. “This collaboration is crucial to ensuring the essential work of the U.S. food supply chain and our continued efforts to keep team members safe.”
Mickelson also said Tyson “was supported by the Biden Administration as we became one of the first fully vaccinated workforces in the U.S,” and that the company has worked “cooperatively and frequently with local health department officials in our plant communities.”
Smithfield and National Beef did not immediately respond to a request for comment from VICE News Friday. Cargill, which is one of the four largest beef producers in the U.S., told VICE News in an email that “the safety of our employees is our number one priority.”
“Throughout the pandemic we’ve worked hard to maintain safe and consistent operations,” a spokesperson said in an email. “At the same time, we have not hesitated to temporarily idle or reduce capacity at processing plants when we determined it necessary to do so.”
“The meat production system is a modern wonder, but it is not one that can be re-directed at the flip of a switch,” Smithfield spokesperson Jim Monroe said in a statement. “The concerns we expressed were very real and we are thankful that a food crisis was averted and that we are starting to return to normal…did we make every effort to share with government officials our perspective on the pandemic and how it was impacting the food production system? Absolutely.”
United Food and Commercial Workers International Union president Marc Perrone singled out Cargill as an employer that has “done what is right” in House testimony in June 2020. But even Cargill workers described being scared to come into work.
“On a normal day we don’t have room for errors, it’s very hard work, and safety is our top priority,” one employee who had worked at a Cargill plant in Texas for 25 years said in an April 2020 press call. “These are not normal days. Every day we worry about this virus.”
More than 86,000 meatpacking workers have contracted COVID and more than 400 have died since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. One scientific study published in the journal of the National Academy of Science estimated that as of July 2020, at least 236,000 cases and 4,300 deaths were linked to meatpacking plants.
“The close coordination and the willful disregard for workers’ safety described in this report should concern us all,” ACLU of Nebraska legal and policy counsel Rose Godinez said in a statement Friday.
“Companies put profits over workers’ lives as the pandemic hit their workers harder than any other industry in Nebraska and agency officials let it happen. Nebraskans who are immigrants and Nebraskans of color then bore the brunt of the tragic human cost of those decisions.”
“Today’s report confirms what we already knew–the Trump Administration’s negligence and unethical actions endangered America’s meatpacking workers and their families at the height of the pandemic,” Perrone said in a statement Thursday.
“UFCW repeatedly sounded the alarm about the Trump Administration’s failed oversight of the industry and its inability to protect the people that kept food on our nation’s tables. This report shows that their failure was not only tragic, but a deliberate attempt to put industry profits ahead of the people just trying to make a living.”
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