WASHINGTON – The country’s largest meat packers successfully lobbied the Trump administration in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic to keep processing plants open despite knowing the health risks to their workers, according to a Congressional report released Thursday.
The report, prepared by a select House committee, describes the extent of the meat industry’s influence on the administration’s response to the pandemic: companies have fueled “unfounded” fears of an impending meat shortage in an effort to prevent the closure of the plants. Tyson Foods Legal Department drafted the initial version of an executive order issued by President Donald J. Trump in April 2020 declare processing plants as “critical infrastructures”. And industry concerns prompted the government to adjust its federal recommendations on worker safety at a meat-packing plant.
Representative James E. Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat and chair of the committee, said the findings underscore companies’ interest in prioritizing manufacturing over the health of their workers.
“The shameful conduct of corporate executives who pursue profit at all costs during a crisis and government officials eager to carry out their orders regardless of the harm to the public ensues must never be repeated,” he said in a statement.
About 59,000 workers in meat packaging plants contracted the virus from March 1, 2020 to February 1, 2021, and 269 eventually died. the committee said in October.
Meat packers and trade groups rejected the findings.
The report “distorts the truth” and “ignores the rigorous and comprehensive measures companies have taken to protect employees and support critical infrastructure workers,” said the North American Meat Institute.
The report is based on 151,000 pages of documents; over a dozen phone calls with meat packers, union representatives and former government officials; and staff briefings with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Department of Agriculture.
They have become slaughterhouses, where people work nearby main hot spots in the first weeks of the pandemic. The closure of the factories guided the executives of Smithfield Foods and Tyson Foods to issue public notices in April 2020 that the country was in danger of running out of meat.
But the data shows that a record amount of pork was exported to China that month. In e-mails obtained by the House committee, Smithfield’s chief executive noted that there was “a lot of meat” to export, and a representative from the North American Meat Institute described the warnings as “intentionally scaring people.”
The report also describes how industry representatives enlisted top Trump administration officials to dissuade workers from staying home and soften federal guidelines for dealing with coronavirus outbreaks in meat-packing plants.
In an April call, for example, the CEOs of the meat companies asked the then secretary of agriculture, Sonny Perdue, that the president or vice president tell workers that “being afraid of Covid-19 is not a reason to quit your job and if you do, you are not entitled to unemployment benefit.
on occasion a press conference at the White House Four days later, Vice President Mike Pence urged food workers to “show up and do their job” and assured them that the administration was “working with all of your companies to make sure your workplace was safe. “.
The report also described Mindy M. Brashears, the former Undersecretary of Food Safety at the Department of Agriculture, as the “go-to fixer” of the meat packaging industry. Ms. Brashears, according to the report, sometimes used her personal phone number and her email to connect with industry representatives, a potential violation of record keeping rules.
Neither Mr. Perdue nor Ms. Brashears immediately responded to requests for comment.
The House committee also obtained documents showing that Smithfield executives hired senior officials from the Department of Agriculture to suggest changes to federal health recommendations for one of its facilities in South Dakota in April 2020.
Compared to an original version obtained from the Washington Postthe final guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention included qualifications such as “if feasible” and “when possible”.
Dr Robert R. Redfield, the former director of the CDC, told the committee he added the qualifications “because he was convinced by the industry concerns” conveyed by Mr. Perdue and his understanding of an impending meat shortage.
Jim Monroe, Smithfield’s vice president of corporate affairs, said in a statement that “the concerns we expressed were very real.”
“Did we make every effort to share our perspective on the pandemic and how it was affecting the food production system with government officials? Absolutely, ”said Mr. Monroe.
As states and local governments began putting their own lockdowns in place, the meat packaging industry sought a workaround by proposing a federal directive invoking the Defense Production Act. Smithfield and Tyson held phone calls with heads of state. greater than both Mr. Trump and Mr. Pence, and Mr. Trump’s executive order “adopted the themes and statutory directive set forth in Tyson’s draft,” the report said.
The executive order it did not require meat processing plants to remain open, but it did reduce the legal liability for companies if they adhered to the coronavirus guidelines.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Tyson, Gary Mickelson, said the company “has been contacted, received directions and worked with many different federal, state and local officials, including the Trump and Biden administrations, as we navigated the challenges of the pandemic”.