Meatpacking Industry Was Indifferent to Worker Safety Amid COVID, Report Shows

Tyson Foods’ CEO, Tyson Foods, reached out to Smithfield Foods’ head to make a proposal after hundreds of meatpacking workers became ill from the coronavirus spreading through their plants and into the communities.

Smithfield’s pork plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, had been hit particularly hard, and state and local officials were pressuring the company to shut it down.

“Anything we can do to help?” Tyson CEO Noel White asked in an email.

Smithfield’s CEO Ken Sullivan replied that he wished there was.

White had an idea. Would Sullivan be interested in discussing the possibility of President Donald Trump signing an executive order to preserve meatpacking plants?

So began a high-pressure lobbying campaign by the meat industry, according to a report released Thursday by congressional investigators, leading to one of the most consequential moments in the nation’s COVID-19 response: a presidential order that effectively thwarted efforts by local health officials to shut plants down and slow the spread of COVID-19.

2020 ProPublica obtainedThousands of emails and other documents proving that the meatpacking industry ignored years of pandemic warnings, attempted to overrulepublic health officials exposedCOVID-19 is available to vulnerable workers and their communities

But the new reportThe House Select Subcommittee for the Coronavirus Crisis and revelations from a wrongful-death lawsuit show that the inhumanity of meatpacking executives, as well as the influence of the industry over the Trump administration, are clearly evident.

For example: ProPublicaHad reported that the meat industry’s trade group shared a draft executive order with the Trump administration that bore striking similarities to the one the president signedDays later.

Emails released by the subcommittee now show that the proposed order was drafted by Tyson’s legal department. The goal. according to Tyson’s vice president of government relations, was to shield the company from legal liability.

ProPublicaAlso reportedThe meat industry ignored warnings from government officials to prepare for a pandemic. They stockpiled masks and developed plans to space out workers at processing lines.

But documents uncovered in a wrongful death lawsuit filed this week in Iowa show that while Tyson was slow to adopt safety measures to protect U.S. workers, it moved swiftly to do so at its plants in China, with extensive protocols, including a mask requirement and reduced production, in place by mid-February 2020 — more than a month before cases showed up in U.S. plants.

The impact of the early spread COVID-19 was dramatic. ProPublicaOther news outlets also reported on cases and deaths involving meatpacking workers. However, academic researchers have discovered that by July 2020, approximately 6% to 8%Coronavirus cases in the U.S. can be attributed to outbreaks of packing plants. In fact, by October 2020, there had been community spread from these plants. generated334,000 deaths due to COVID-19-related causes.

There are new documents that allege that meatpacking firms tried to hide cases. As workers began calling in sick at a Tyson pork plant in Waterloo, Iowa, the company’s workplace health managers instructed plant nurses not to record the absences as “COVID-19,” but instead as “flu-like symptoms,” families of deceased workers said in their lawsuit. ProPublica reportedThe community was largely affected by COVID cases at the plant.

Similarly, when local health officials in California investigated an outbreak at a Foster Farms chicken plant, they discovered five additional deaths that had been marked not as fatalities, but instead as “resolved cases” or “resolutions.” Health officials told the subcommittee that during a conference call with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, someone from either Foster Farms or the USDA jokingly called them “toe tag resolutions,” referring to the toe tags that are often put on corpses at morgues.

The emails show that some meatpacking leaders did not seek to protect their employees as they claimed, but to get them to work so that they could continue producing meat.

“As an industry we’re doing everything we can to provide as sanitized an environment as possible,” Sullivan wroteTo other industry executives in April. “But, we’re not asking for N-95 masks or anything like that. The President, along with all levels of government, should make it more clear that food and agriculture workers are frontline workers fighting the pandemic. The industry needs help, straight from the bully pulpit, to reinforce our patriotic duty to produce food for the country.”

Even though it was obvious that many workers were dying, a Koch Foods executive said in May 2020 that the only safety measure that the chicken industry should use was temperature monitoring. Ashley Peterson is a lobbyist for National Chicken Council.

“Now to get rid of those pesky health departments!” she replied.

Despite the pain, meatpacking companies have not suffered any serious consequences. Sullivan and White are just two of the key executives who have resigned or remain in leadership positions. The companies were not subject to any workplace safety penalties and have been fined. used Trump’s executive order to fight lawsuits from workers’ families. Four of the largest meatpackers saw their profit margins increase by more than 80%. 300%According to the Biden administration.

“The meatpacking industry’s efforts — aided extensively by Trump’s USDA and White House officials — led to policies, guidance, and an executive order that, individually and altogether, forced meatpacking workers to continue working despite health risks and allowed companies to avoid taking precautions to protect workers from the coronavirus,” the subcommittee concluded.

The meatpacking industry on Thursday pushed back on the subcommittee’s findings, saying it distorted the record and ignored the billions of dollars that meatpackers spent on safety measures.

“The Committee could have tried to learn what the industry did to stop the spread of COVID among meat and poultry workers,” Julie Anna Potts, president of the North American Meat Institute, said in a statement. “Instead, the Committee uses 20/20 hindsight and cherry picks data to support a narrative that is completely unrepresentative of the early days of an unprecedented national emergency.”

The National Chicken Council did not address lobbyist Peterson’s comments but said in a statement that processors “did everything they could to keep their workers safe.” Tyson and Smithfield emphasized that the unique challenges of the pandemic necessitated that they work closely with top government officials.

“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,” Tyson spokesperson Gary Mickelson said, noting that the Biden administration supported the company’s effort last year to have one of the first fully vaccinated workforces in the U.S. Mickelson did not address the lawsuit allegations.

Said Smithfield spokesperson Jim Monroe, “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.”

Foster Farms did no respond to a request to comment.

While most of the previous reporting on the meatpacking industry’s response to COVID-19 relied on documents obtained under public records laws, the subcommittee’s report is based on 151,000 pages of documents that include an extensive trove of internal company emails.

These records show that meatpacking executives used the USDA’s power from the beginning to influence Trump’s health decisions.

In March 2020, the industry pushed for the USDA to be involved in the White House Coronavirus Task Force and to help ensure that meatpacking workers were classified as “critical infrastructure” workers so they would be exempted from governors’ stay-at-home orders.

The industry was fortunate to have the USDA as its “primary regulator,” Potts wrote in an email to colleagues. “Officials at USDA are moving more quickly than other agencies and representing our industry’s interests in every important interagency decision,” she said.

Within weeks, Trump’s agriculture secretary, Sonny Perdue, set up a call between the CEOs of Tyson, Smithfield and other meatpackers and Vice President Mike Pence. That same day, during a White House press briefing, Pence heeded the industry’s request to address recent worker absences, telling meatpacking workers to “show up and do your job.”

A spokesperson for the University System of Georgia, where Perdue is now chancellor, declined to comment on his behalf, saying Perdue was now “focused on his new position serving the students of Georgia.”

After Smithfield’s Sioux Falls plant was shut down in April 2020, the emails show, Sullivan took a uniquely aggressive stance, one that even some of his colleagues in the meat industry bristled at.

Sullivan was one of the many people who voted in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s draft recommendations to reduce COVID-19 in the plant. marked up a copy, starring in the margins strategies that he deemed “problematic” for the aging plant. In response, the CDC added multiple qualifiers saying Smithfield should implement the recommendations only “if feasible.”

“It really muddies the guidance when we start putting these waffle words into it,” Dr. Henry Walke, then-director of CDC’s Division of Preparedness and Emerging Infections told the subcommittee, according to excerpts from an interview transcript. “I felt that was watering down our guidance.”

The subcommittee found that Sullivan and others within the industry had misled the public about a possible shortage of meat if they closed down temporarily. After the Smithfield plant suspended operations, Sullivan said the closures were “pushing our country perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply.” Days later, however, Smithfield urged the North American Meat Institute to issue a statement to reassure international customers that “there was plenty of meat” for export.

In emails, the trade group’s leaders said Sullivan was “directing the panic” and “intentionally scaring people,” creating a “mess” that they’d have to clean up.

Smithfield spokesperson Monroe said, “The concerns we expressed were very real and we are thankful that a food crisis was averted.”

Potts of North American Meat Institute began to worry as the coronavirus swept through meatpacking communities. email that “plants are being closed” and “health departments are showing up unannounced at plants.”

She wrote, “It seems to be cascading and our friends at USDA and the VP’s office are not able to stop it.”

But at almost the exact same moment, Tyson’s CEO was emailing the head of Smithfield about his idea for an executive order.

Within two days, Tyson’s vice president and associate general counsel circulated a draft order that would invoke the president’s powers under a Korean War-era law called the Defense Production Act. And the meatpacking executives agreed that they should send it to Washington.

Tyson’s vice president of government relations called it a “long shot,” but said, “I think we have a good momentum for a Hail Mary!”

When some in the industry expressed concern that such an ask could come across as “production at any cost,” Potts once again leaned on the industry’s connections with the USDA, sending the draft to top agency officials who passed on the request to the White House.

The records from the subcommittee reveal that meatpacking industry representatives were in constant touch with the White House, USDA, and USDA in the days before the executive order was issued. Sullivan and White held calls with Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, which were followed by a request from Meadows for White to meet directly with Trump. On the morning of his executive order, the president called meatpacking executives.

The order had immediate effect, as health officials in Virginia backed off a recommendation to close a plant and officials in Utah cited the order as the reason they couldn’t shut a plant down.

Thousands of meatpacking workers would continue crowding into processing plants, at risk of contracting the virus and bringing it home with them.

A few months later, when Trump’s administration announced plans to reopen schools for the first time, North American Meat Institute executives took a different tone. They questioned whether bringing students back together without a vaccine — what they had done with meatpacking workers — was a good idea for kids in their area.

“This is just astounding,” wroteBill Westman, senior vice president for trade group. “How can anyone guarantee that schools can ‘safely reopen’ under the circumstances as cases are surging across the USA? Why risk students and their extended families?

“This administration is living in an alternative and dangerous reality.”