Meat packers promoted ‘baseless’ shortages to keep factories open amid covid

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The biggest players in the US meat industry used ‘baseless’ allegations of beef and pork shortages at the start of the pandemic to persuade the Trump White House to keep processing plants running, without take into account the risks of coronavirus which ultimately killed at least 269 workers, according to a special report. House Committee to Investigate the National Response to the Pandemic.

In a report released Thursday, the committee alleges that Tyson Foods’ legal team prepared a draft with input from other companies that became the basis of an executive order to keep factories open that the Trump administration issued. in April 2020, making it difficult for workers to stay home.

“Meatpackers knew the risk posed by coronavirus to their workers and knew it was not a risk the country needed them,” according to the report of the select subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis . “They nonetheless lobbied aggressively – successfully enlisting [the U.S. Agriculture Department] as a close collaborator in their efforts – to keep workers at work in unsafe conditions, to ensure that state and local health authorities were powerless to order otherwise, and to be protected from legal liability for resulting damages. would result.

The report alleges that the nation’s largest meat packers and industry trade groups repeatedly misled the public when they warned that a slowdown in their operations posed an imminent threat to the country’s meat supplies. But “these fears were unfounded,” the investigators wrote.

The report of the bipartisan House selection subcommittee is based on the review of 151,000 pages of documents, more than a dozen investigative calls with representatives of the union of meat packing workers, former Department of Agriculture and Occupational Safety and Health Administration officials, and state and local health authorities. The subcommittee also held a staff briefing with OSHA and USDA.

Internal industry documents showed that “despite awareness of the elevated risks of spreading the coronavirus in their plants, meatpacking companies have engaged in a concerted effort with Trump administration policymakers to isolate themselves from coronavirus-related surveillance, to force workers to continue working in unsafe conditions, and to protect themselves from legal liability in the event of a worker’s illness or death,” the report said.

Coronavirus outbreaks among workers in meat processing plants are disrupting the supply chain. (Video: Sarah Hashemi, Jayne Orenstein/The Washington Post)

In the lead up to the issuance of the executive order, executives from Smithfield and Tyson held calls with members of President Donald Trump’s White House, including then-chief of staff Mark Meadows and chief of staff of Vice President Mike Pence, Marc Short.

Gary Mickelson, Tyson’s public relations director, said the company has worked with government officials at many levels in the Trump and Biden administrations as it navigates the pandemic.

“This collaboration is critical to ensuring the essential work of the U.S. food supply chain and our ongoing efforts to keep team members safe,” Mickelson said in a statement. “For example, last year Tyson Foods was supported by the Biden administration as we became one of the first fully immunized workforces in the United States. Our efforts have also included working cooperatively and frequently with the local health service officials in our plant communities.”

Jim Monroe, vice president of corporate affairs at Smithfield, said the company has invested more than $900 million to support worker safety, including paying workers to stay home, and that it had exceeded Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and OSHA guidelines.

“The meat production system is a modern marvel, but it’s not one that can be rerouted on the fly,” Monroe said in a statement. “This is the challenge we faced as restaurants closed, eating habits changed and pigs ended up on farms with nowhere to go. The concerns we expressed were very real and we are grateful that a real food crisis has been averted and we are starting to get back to normal.

An estimated 334,000 coronavirus cases nationwide have been linked to meatpacking plants, resulting in more than $11 billion in economic damage, according to a study from the University of California, Davis. The researchers found that per capita infection rates in counties that housed beef and pork processing facilities were twice as high. In counties with chicken processing facilities, the transmission rate was 20% higher.

Publicly, lobbyists and meat industry executives have sounded the alarm about the threat the plant closures would pose to the country’s food supply chain. Concerns about worker absenteeism hampering production came as the virus first swept the country and the central bank unleashed an unprecedented flood of unemployment benefits to prop up workers.

“The food supply chain is breaking,” wrote John H. Tyson, chairman of Tyson’s board, in a full-page ad in The Washington Post, New York Times, and Arkansas Democrat. -Gazette in April 2020.

“We have a responsibility to feed our country,” the ad said. “It’s as essential as health care. This is a challenge that should not be overlooked. Our factories must remain operational so that we can provide food for our families in America.

But that same month, U.S. pork exports hit their highest level in three years, according to the report. In the first three quarters of 2020, JBS exported 370% more pork to China than in the same period of 2017; Smithfield exported 90% more pork over the same period.

“These employers must be held accountable for the consequences of their blatant disregard for the safety and lives of their employees,” Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said Thursday. “Today’s report is just one step towards accountability, but more needs to be done to stop companies putting profits before people’s lives in the industry.”

At least 59,000 workers at Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods, JBS, Cargill and National Beef — companies that control most of the U.S. meat market — were infected with the coronavirus in the first year of the pandemic, a previously noted the subcommittee. At least 269 workers at these companies died of covid-19 between March 1, 2020 and February 1, 2021.

“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 of our actions and decisions,” said Nikki Richardson, communications manager for JBS USA, at The Post. . “During this critical time, we have done everything we can to ensure the safety of our employees who have kept our food supply chain running smoothly.”

Cargill told The Post it has worked hard to maintain “safe and consistent operations” throughout the pandemic.

“At the same time, we have not been shy about temporarily idling or reducing processing plant capacity when we deemed it necessary to do so,” Cargill said in a statement. “The well-being of our plant employees is integral to our business and the continuity of the food supply chain.”

National Beef did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Post.

To maintain the pace of production as business activity around the world ground to a halt, meatpacking companies and the USDA “jointly lobbied the White House to dissuade workers from staying home or to resign,” according to the report.

The USDA did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Post.

In April 2020, the chief executives of Tyson, JBS USA, Smithfield Foods and other meatpacking companies had a call with Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, in which they asked him to “reinforce the need messages about the importance for our workforce to stay at work”. [president] or [vice president] and separately highlighted the need to clarify that “being afraid of COVID-19 is not a reason to quit your job and you are not eligible for unemployment compensation if you do.”

Shortly after, at a press conference, Pence delivered a “direct message to meatpacking workers” that “we need you to keep…showing up and doing your job,” warning recent “incidents of worker absenteeism,” the report said.

Tyson’s legal team drafted the proposed executive order that the companies used as justification to keep factories open, the investigation found, and the final version “adopted the themes and statutory directive set out in Tyson’s draft. , citing the Defense Production Act to ensure meatpacking plants “continue operations”.

“In the days leading up to President Trump’s issuance of the executive order, meatpacking industry representatives and companies – Smithfield and Tyson in particular – engaged in constant communications with Trump appointees. at the USDA, the National Economic Council, and the White House,” the report said. notes, including “calls between Smithfield CEO Ken Sullivan and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows; a joint call with Sullivan, Meadows and Tyson CEO Noel White; a call between White and Vice President Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short; and a call from Meadows to White asking if White would be willing to meet with President Trump.

Short and Perdue declined to comment on the report. Meadows and Pence did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The next day, after the order was released, the Trump White House reportedly “requested” that companies “release positive statements and social media about the president’s action on behalf of the industry, on the order she itself and how it will help ensure the food supply chain remains strong,” according to the report.

Aaron Gregg contributed to this report.

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