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Meatpackers ignored COVID-19 spread to keep operating, House report says

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Mike Dorning

The nation’s biggest meatpackers ignored warnings that COVID-19 was spreading through their plants, hyped claims of impending shortages and helped draft a Trump administration order to keep the facilities running during the early days of the pandemic, a congressional investigation found.

A report released Thursday by a House panel examining the nation’s pandemic response portrayed a coordinated campaign by major meatpacking companies and their Washington lobbyists to enlist senior officials of then-President Donald Trump’s administration in an effort to circumvent state and local health departments’ attempts to control the spread of the virus in meatpacking facilities.

Democratic Representative James Clyburn, who chairs the panel, said “shameful conduct” of meatpacking executives “prioritized industry production over the health of workers and communities, and contributed to tens of thousands of workers becoming ill, hundreds of workers dying, and the virus spreading throughout surrounding areas.”

Julie Anna Potts, president of the main meatpackers’ trade group, the North American Meat Institute, called the report “completely unrepresentative” and said it “ignores the rigorous and comprehensive measures companies enacted to protect employees.”

Meatpacking plants were an early epicenter of the virus and seeded coronavirus in surrounding communities, with subsequent studies showing counties with large meatpacking facilities experiencing dramatically higher caseloads in the early phases of the pandemic than similar areas without such plants. Employees worked sometimes elbow-to-elbow on cramped, cold production lines that fostered spread of the disease.

Thousands Infected

At least 59,000 workers at the nation’s five largest meatpacking companies were infected with the coronavirus during the pandemic’s first year and at least 269 of them died, according to the report. The five companies are Tyson Foods, JBS USA Holdings, Smithfield Foods, Cargill Inc. and National Beef Packing Co.

Even in late May 2020, after outbreaks at meatpacking plants captured national attention, an executive at Koch Foods grumbled to an industry lobbyist that temperature screenings of employees entering facilities is “all we should be doing,” according to an email exchange quoted in the report. The lobbyist agreed, responding, “Now to get rid of those pesky health departments!”

The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis concluded that warnings in April 2020 by top executives at Tyson and Smithfield that the nation was on the verge of a meat shortage were “baseless,” citing emails from industry representatives describing the statements as “intentionally scaring people” and “whipping everyone into a frenzy.”

The panel found that Tyson’s legal department drafted the executive order Trump issued in April 2020 as COVID-19 spread through the plants invoking the Defense Production Act to ensure meatpacking plants “continue operations.” Trump issued the order less than a week after a meatpacking industry representative shared the draft with Trump political appointees at the US Department of Agriculture, according to the report.

In the days before the order was issued, meatpacking company executives were engaged in “constant communication” with senior Trump officials, including calls with then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Marc Short, chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence.

Jim Monroe, a spokesman for Smithfield, said the company “took every appropriate measure to keep our workers safe” and has spent more than $900 million so far on the goal.

‘Very real’

“The meat production system is a modern wonder, but it is not one that can be re-directed at the flip of a switch,” Monroe said. “That is the challenge we faced as restaurants closed, consumption patterns changed and hogs backed up on farms with nowhere to go.” He added that the concerns company representatives expressed to Trump officials were “very real.”

Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson said worker safety has been “our top priority” and the meatpacker’s workforce was one of the first in the country to be fully vaccinated. JBS spokeswoman Nikki Richardson said worker safety “guided all our actions.” Cargill issued a statement saying safety “is our number one priority.” A National Beef representative declined comment.

Career USDA officials told the committee that they were “walled off” from efforts that Trump political appointees at the department made in April 2020 to stymie efforts by state and local health departments to require stricter safety measures at meatpacking plants, according the report.

Meatpacking executives were repeatedly warned that month by local doctors and health departments of the danger posed to their employees by working conditions in the plants. The report cited an April 18, 2020, email from a doctor at Moore County Hospital outside JBS’s plant in Cactus, Texas, to the head of corporate affairs for JBS USA.

“100% of all COVID-19 patients we have in the hospital are either direct employees or family member[s] of your employees,” the doctor wrote. “There is a major outbreak of COVID-19 infection in your Cactus facility….Your employees will get sick and may die if this factory continues to be open.”

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©2022 Bloomberg L.P. Visit bloomberg.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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