WASHINGTON – The nation’s largest meatpackers successfully pressured 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 report from the Congress published on Thursday.
The report, prepared by a House select committee, outlines the extent of the meat industry’s influence on the administration’s response to the pandemic: Companies stoked “unfounded” fears of an impending meat shortage in an effort to avert plant closures. Tyson Foods’ legal department drafted the initial version of an executive order President Donald J. Trump issued in April 2020 declaring processing plants “critical infrastructure.” And industry concerns prompted the government to adjust its federal guidelines on worker safety at a meatpacking plant.
Rep. James E. Clyburn, a Democrat from South Carolina and chairman of the committee, said the findings underscore companies’ interest in prioritizing production over the health of their workers.
“The shameful conduct of corporate executives seeking profit at any cost during a crisis and government officials eager to do their bidding regardless of the resulting harm to the public must never be repeated,” he said in a statement.
About 59,000 meatpacking plant workers contracted the virus from March 1, 2020, to February 1, 2021, with 269 ultimately dying, the committee said in October.
Meatpacking companies and trade groups rejected the findings.
The report “distorts the truth” and “ignores the rigorous and comprehensive measures companies have enacted to protect employees and support critical infrastructure workers,” the North American Meat Institute said.
The report is based on 151,000 pages of documents; more than a dozen calls with meatpacking workers, union representatives and former government officials; and briefings for staff with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Department of Agriculture.
Slaughterhouses, where people work in close proximity, became major hotspots in the early weeks of the pandemic. The plant closures prompted executives at Smithfield Foods and Tyson Foods to issue public warnings in April 2020 that the country was at risk of running out of meat.
But the data shows that a record amount of pork was exported to China that month. In emails obtained by the House committee, Smithfield’s chief executive noted there was “plenty of meat” to export, and a representative from the North American Meat Institute described the warnings as “intentionally scaring people.”
The report also details how top Trump administration officials were enlisted by industry representatives to discourage workers from staying home and water down federal guidance to address coronavirus outbreaks at meatpacking plants.
In an April call, for example, meatpacking CEOs asked then-Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue for the president or vice president to convey to workers that “being afraid of Covid-19 is no reason to resign”. your job and you are not eligible for unemployment compensation if you do.”
During a White House news conference four days later, Vice President Mike Pence urged food workers to “show up and do your job” and assured them that the administration was “working with all of your companies to make sure your place is safe.” of work is safe”.
The report also described Mindy M. Brashears, a former undersecretary for food safety at the Department of Agriculture, as the meatpacking industry’s “gold standard fixer.” Ms. Brashears, according to the report, sometimes used her personal phone number and email address to connect with industry representatives, a possible violation of record-keeping rules.
Neither Mr. Perdue nor Ms. Brashears immediately responded to requests for comment.
The House committee also obtained documents showing Smithfield executives hired top Agriculture Department officials to suggest changes to federal health recommendations for one of its South Dakota facilities in April 2020.
Compared to an original version obtained by The Washington Post, the final guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention included qualifiers such as “if feasible” and “whenever possible.”
Dr. Robert R. Redfield, a former CDC director, told the committee he had added the qualifiers “because he was convinced by industry concerns” conveyed by Mr. Perdue and his understanding of a looming 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 go to great lengths to share with government officials our perspective on the pandemic and how it was affecting the food production system? Absolutely,” said Mr. Monroe.
As state and local governments began to enact their own closures, the meatpacking industry sought a solution by proposing a federal directive invoking the Defense Production Act. Smithfield and Tyson held calls with both Mr. Trump’s and Mr. Pence’s chiefs of staff, and Mr. Trump’s executive order “adopted the themes and statutory directive set forth in Tyson’s draft,” the report says.
The executive order did not require meat processing plants to remain open, but reduced the legal liability of businesses if they adhered to coronavirus guidelines.
In a statement, a Tyson spokesman, Gary Mickelson, said the company “has been contacted, directed, and collaborated with many federal, state, and local officials, including the Trump and Biden administrations, as we navigated the challenges of the pandemic.”