Meatpackers pushed to stay open as COVID-19 spread, congressional investigation says

At the height of the pandemic, the meat processing industry worked closely with political appointees in the Trump administration to avoid health restrictions and keep slaughterhouses open even when COVID-19 rapidly among workers, according to a congressional report released Thursday.

Meatpacking companies pushed to keep their plants open even though company leaders knew workers were at high risk of contracting the virus, according to the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis report. Lobbying led health and labor officials to water down their recommendations for the industry, culminating in a executive order that President Donald Trump issued in the spring of 2020 designating meat plants as critical infrastructure that must remain open.

Food workers were disproportionately affected early in the pandemic, with one study finding that having a beef or pork processing facility nearby more than doubled a US county’s per capita coronavirus infection rates. USA

Democratic Rep. Jim Clyburn, who heads the subcommittee, said USDA and industry officials prioritized production and profits over the health of workers and communities, with at least 59,000 workers. catching COVID-19 and 269 dying.

“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,” Clyburn said.

Former Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue, who now heads the University System of Georgia, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The report is based on communications between industry executives, lobbyists and USDA officials and other documents the committee received from government agencies, Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods, JBS, Cargill, National Beef, Hormel and other companies. These firms control 85% of the beef market and 70% of pork production nationwide.

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The trade group North American Meat Institute said the report distorts the truth and ignores the steps companies took in spending billions of dollars to refurbish plants and buy protective equipment for workers as the world learned more about the virus. viruses in 2020.

“The House Select Committee has done the nation a disservice,” said the trade group’s president and CEO, Julie Anna Potts. “The Committee could have sought to learn what the industry did to stop the spread of COVID among meat and poultry workers, reducing industry-associated positive cases while cases rose across the country. Instead, The Committee uses 20/20 hindsight and cherry picks data to support a narrative that in no way represents the first days of an unprecedented national emergency.”

One of the main unions representing processing plant workers condemned the way the Trump administration helped the meat industry.

“We just want the Trump Administration to care as much about the lives of workers as it does about meat, pork and poultry products,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. “We understood that poultry plants needed to close for a deep clean and save workers’ lives. If the Trump Administration had developed meaningful worker safety requirements early on, as it should have, this wouldn’t even have become a problem”.

“Annoying Health Departments”

The report says meatpacking companies were slow to take steps to protect workers from the virus and pushed for government recommendations to require the use of masks, install dividers between workstations and encourage social distancing in their plants as optional. The industry has defended its response to the pandemic in the past, and major meat companies say they worked aggressively to meet those safety standards and took additional steps to protect workers.

But the report cited a message a Koch Foods executive sent to a lobbyist in the spring of 2020 that said the industry should do nothing more than take employee temperatures at the door of plants. The lobbyist agreed, saying, “Now get rid of those pesky health departments!”

To that end, the report says USDA officials, at the behest of the meat companies, attempted to use the executive order issued by Trump to prevent state and local health officials from ordering the plants to close.

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Even with those efforts, US meat production still fell to about 60% of normal during the spring of 2020 because several major plants were forced to temporarily close for deep cleaning and safety upgrades or operated at slower speeds due to a shortage of workers.

Documents uncovered by the committee showed that meatpacking companies pushed hard for the executive order in part because they believed it would help protect them from liability if workers became ill or died, something a federal appeals court later rejected in a lawsuit. against Tyson over the deaths of workers at an Iowa plant. The emails show that the companies themselves submitted a draft of the executive order to the administration days before it was issued.

pressured to work

Companies also pushed to discourage employees from staying home even as coronavirus fears spread, according to the congressional investigation.

Potts, the president of the Meat Institute, emailed Purdue asking it to reinforce the message that “being afraid of COVID-19 is not a reason to quit your job, and if you do, you’re not eligible for unemployment compensation.

“We need that reinforcement at all levels of government,” he said in an email discovered by the committee.

But even in the early days of the pandemic, meatpacking companies knew the virus was spreading rapidly among their workers because infection rates were much higher in the plants and surrounding communities. The report says that in April 2020, a doctor at a hospital near a JBS plant in Cactus, Texas, told company and government officials in an email that there was a major outbreak at the plant because all the patients with COVID-19 in the hospital or worked in the plant or were a relative of a worker.

“Your employees will get sick and may die if this factory stays open,” the doctor warned.

The report also highlighted how meatpacking companies aggressively pushed back against government safety recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. That led to the final guide that includes language that effectively made the rules optional because he said recommendations should be made “if feasible” or “where possible.”

With information from Kate Gibson and Irina Ivanova.

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