Trump officials “collaborated” with the meat-packing industry to minimize the Covid threat to plant workers and block public health measures that could have saved lives, a damning new investigation has uncovered.
Internal documents reviewed by Congress’s restricted subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis reveal how industry representatives lobbied government officials to stifle “nagging” health departments from imposing evidence-based safety measures to reduce the spread of the virus and they tried to obscure the death of the workers from these authorities.
At least 59,000 workers at five of the largest meat-packing companies – Tyson Foods, JBS USA Holdings, Smithfield Foods, Cargill and National Beef Packing Company who are the subject of the Congressional investigation – contracted Covid in the first year of the pandemic. of which at least 269 deaths.
According to internal communications, companies were warned that workers and their families fell ill just weeks after the virus hit the United States. Despite this, company representatives have enlisted industry-friendly Trump nominees at the USDA to fight their battles against Covid regulations and oversight.
Additionally, company executives have intentionally fueled fears of meat shortages to justify continuing to operate the plants in hazardous conditions. The fears were unfounded: there was no shortage of meat in the United States, while exports to China hit record highs.
Yet in April 2020 Trump issued an executive order invoking the Defense Production Act to keep meat plants open following a flurry of communications between White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, the Vice President’s office, USDA allies and company executives.
The order, proposed by Smithfield and Tyson (whose legal department also wrote the draft), was a blatant attempt to bypass health departments and coerce meat plant workers – who are mostly immigrants, refugees and people from color – to continue working without adequate safeguards protecting the industry from legal action.
James Clyburn, chairman of the subcommittee, condemned the conduct of industry executives and their government allies as “shameful”.
Trump’s political appointees at USDA have partnered with large meat-packing companies to lead an administrative effort to force workers to stay at work during the coronavirus crisis despite dangerous conditions and even to prevent the imposition of common sense mitigation measures. This coordinated campaign prioritized industrial production over the health of workers and communities and helped tens of thousands of workers fall ill, hundreds of workers die, and the virus spreads to surrounding areas. “.
The meat packaging industry, which includes slaughterhouses and processing plants, is one of the most profitable and dangerous in the United States. it’s a monopoly businesswith only a handful of powerful multinationals dominating the supply chain which, even before Covid, was bad news for farmers, workers, consumers and animal welfare.
With the spread of Covid, the industry has been warned of the high risk of transmission in their plants. For example, a doctor near the JBS facility in Cactus, Texas wrote to a company executive in April 2020 saying, “100 percent of all Covid-19 patients we have in the hospital are direct employees or family members.[s] of your employees “, warning that” your employees will get sick and could die if this factory continues to be open. “
In late May 2020, well after the importance of preventative measures such as testing, social distancing and personal protective equipment was widely recognized, an executive told an industry lobbyist that temperature screening was “all that. we should do”. The lobbyist agreed, replying, “Now get rid of those pesky health departments!”
the report Now to get rid of those annoying healthy wards!, reveals how USDA appointees Trump executed industry bids to continue business as usual. The report is based on more than 151,000 pages of documents collected from meat-packing companies and interest groups, as well as interviews with meat-packing workers, former USDA and CDC officials, and state and local health authorities, among others.
The documents show that:
- In March 2020, the industry exerted aggressive pressure on USDA officials, who in turn stepped up their wishes at Vice President Mike Pence’s office, to ensure states were advised to designate meat packing workers as “critical infrastructure” employees who could be exempt from social distancing and stay at home orders. This conduct was “particularly striking considering that the nation’s meat supply was not actually at risk,” the subcommittee found.
- Mindy Brashears, the Food Safety Undersecretary, was considering the trusted repairman, who could prevent health departments from enforcing Covid safety measures at local factories. Brashear “hasn’t lost a fight for us,” said one lobbyist.
- USDA career staff told the Congressional subcommittee how he was sidelined, while Brashears and his deputies communicated with industry officials on their personal phones to avoid leaving a paper trail.
- Meat-packing companies have also successfully lobbied USDA officials to support Department of Labor policies that deprived their employees of benefits if they lost their jobs or quit, while also seeking isolation from legal liability if the workers fell ill or died.
With reports of Covid clusters growing in meat-packing plants, industry officials and the USDA jointly lobbied the White House to dissuade frightened workers from staying home or leaving. For example, in April 2020 the CEOs of JBS, Smithfield and Tyson, among other companies, asked the Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, during a call to “elevate the need to send messages about the importance of our strength. work that remains at work at the level of POTUS or VP. “
It worked. In a press conference soon after, Mike Pence told meat packing workers that “we need you to keep … showing up and doing your job”, admonishing recent “worker absenteeism incidents”.
The report concludes: “Meat packing companies knew the risk the coronavirus posed to their workers and they knew it was not a risk the country needed them to take. Nonetheless, they lobbied aggressively, successfully enlisting the USDA as a close collaborator in their efforts to keep workers in the workplace in unsafe conditions, to ensure that state and local health authorities did not have the power to enforce otherwise. and to be protected from legal liability for the resulting damage “.
The trade association for meat and poultry packers and processors rejected the report’s findings and accused the subcommittee of “cherry harvest data”.
“The report ignores the rigorous and comprehensive measures companies have taken to protect employees and support critical infrastructure workers,” said Julie Anna Potts, president and CEO of the North American Meat Institute.
Additionally, a spokesperson for JBS said the company “has done everything it can to ensure the safety of our people who have kept our vital food supply chain running.” Cargill said in a statement, “We have worked hard to maintain safe and consistent operations to feed families during the pandemic, but we have not hesitated to temporarily suspend or reduce the capacity of processing plants in the interest of the well-being of our employees.”
A Smithfield spokesperson said: “The concerns we expressed were very real and we are grateful that a food crisis has been averted and that we are starting to return to normal … We have made every effort to share our opinion with government officials. perspective on the pandemic and how has it affected the food production system? Absolutely. “
Tyson said collaboration with the government has been critical to the supply chain and worker safety: “Over the past two years, our company has been contacted, advised and partnered with many different federal, state officials. and local, including both the Trump and Biden administrations, while we have addressed the challenges of the pandemic. “
The Subcommittee’s investigation into the meat packaging industry’s response to the pandemic was launched in February 2021 following reports that meat companies had refused to take adequate safety measures to protect workers during the first year of the pandemic. Last year, the subcommittee found that the Disease and death toll in plants owned by the big five meat packers had been grossly underestimated and that companies were putting their profits on worker safety.
the Guardians contacted the USDA and the former Trump administration officials for comment.