Trump let the meat packing industry kill employees

Last year, the Select Subcommittee found that during the first year of the pandemic, infections and deaths among workers for five of the largest meatpacking companies — Tyson Foods, Inc. (Tyson), JBS USA Holdings, Inc. (JBS), Smithfield Foods (Smithfield), Cargill, Inc. (Cargill), and National Beef Packing Company LLC (National Beef) — were significantly higher than previously estimated, with over 59,000 workers for these companies being infected with the coronavirus and at least 269 dying.2 Internal meatpacking industry documents reviewed by the Select Subcommittee now illustrate that despite awareness of the high risks of coronavirus spread in their plants, meatpacking companies engaged in a concerted effort with Trump Administration political officials to insulate themselves from coronavirus-related oversight, to force workers to continue working in dangerous conditions, and to shield themselves from legal liability for any resulting worker illness or death. Specifically, the Select Subcommittee’s investigation has found that:

The Meatpacking Industry Had Notice of the Acute Risks the Coronavirus Posed to Workers in Meatpacking Plants.

• Meatpacking executives were aware of the high risks of coronavirus transmission inside of plants. For example, a JBS executive received an April 2020 email from a doctor in a hospital near JBS’ Cactus, Texas facility saying “100% of all COVID-19 patients we have in the hospital are either direct employees or family member[s] of your employees,” and warning that “your employees will get sick and may die if this factory continues to be open.”3
Meatpacking Companies’ Claims of an Impending Protein Shortage Were Flimsy if Not Outright False.

• In an attempt to justify operating meatpacking plants under dangerous conditions, Smithfield and Tyson warned that reduced operations and worker absenteeism would cause an imminent meat shortage,4 but these fears were baseless. For example, just three days after Smithfield Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Ken Sullivan publicly warned that the closure of a Smithfield plant was “pushing our country perilously close to the edge in terms of our nation’s meat supply,”5 he asked industry representatives to issue a statement that “there was plenty of meat, enough . . . to export,”6 while Smithfield told meat importers the same.7 When discussing Smithfield’s statements about the meat supply, industry representatives described Sullivan as “intentionally scaring people,” “whipp[ing] everyone into a frenzy,” and creating a “mess” that others would have to “clean up.”8 Numerous public reports corroborate that there was no meat shortage during this time.9

Meatpacking Companies Successfully Enlisted Trump USDA Political Appointees to Advocate Against Health Protections for Workers, While Sidelining Career Staff.

• Trump political appointees at USDA advocated for meatpacking companies — not consumers, workers, or the public. In mid-March 2020, a meatpacking industry representative spoke with Department of Agriculture (USDA) Under Secretary for Food Safety Mindy Brashears about the White House Coronavirus Task Force, saying “we would certainly like” for Brashears “to be involved in any discussion regarding meat.”10 By the following day, USDA was reportedly “in the leadership role” on the Task Force, which “delighted” the representative.11 Just a few weeks later, industry representatives discussed how they were “fortunate” to have USDA as their “primary regulator” because it was “representing [the] industry’s interests in every important interagency conversation.”

• Under Secretary Brashears was viewed as the industry’s go-to fixer in blocking attempts by other regulators to improve health and safety conditions in meatpacking plants. For example, in March 2020 a Tyson executive discussed Tyson plants under scrutiny by state and local health authorities, saying “So far, we’ve been able to handle these situations, but at some point we may need to get Mindy involved if we are forced to shut down a plant.”13 A few months later, a meatpacking lobbyist told a Foster Farms executive that Brashears “hasn’t lost a battle for us” in connection with efforts to block a local health department order to regulate coronavirus measures in a Foster Farms facility.

• Trump political appointees at USDA reportedly excluded career USDA officials from key decision making, did not consult career USDA officials when engaging with state and local health authorities, and used personal devices in communicating with industry groups. Career USDA officials told the Select Subcommittee that Brashears’ and her deputies’ pattern of interference with state and local health departments in issues of coronavirus plant safety was “exclusively handled at the political level,” with career staff being “walled off,” and leaving “no paper trail” of such meetings.15 Internal meatpacking industry emails similarly show Brashears personally calling and texting with industry representatives, giving them her personal cell phone number, and using her personal email account to communicate with them.16
Meatpacking Companies Worked with Trump’s USDA to Force Meatpacking Workers to Stay on the Job Despite Unsafe Conditions.

• When workers were afraid to report to work because of the lack of coronavirus precautions and high infection rates in plants, meatpacking companies and USDA jointly lobbied the White House to dissuade workers from staying home or quitting. In April 2020, the CEOs of JBS, Smithfield, Tyson, and other meatpacking companies had a call with Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, during which they asked him to “elevate the need for messaging about the importance of our workforce staying at work to the POTUS or VP level” and separately stressed the need to make clear that “being afraid of COVID-19 is not a reason to quit your job and you are not eligible for unemployment compensation if you do.”17 These efforts led to Vice President Pence issuing a direct message to meatpacking workers in a press conference that “we need you to continue . . . to show up and do your job,” admonishing recent “incidents of worker absenteeism.

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