Trump officials, meat companies knew workers at risk

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — 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 as COVID-19 spread rapidly among workers, according to a report. Congressional report released Thursday.

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

Democratic Rep. Jim Clyburn, who heads the subcommittee, said USDA and industry officials prioritized production and profits over the health of workers and communities as at least 59,000 workers have contracted the virus and 269 workers have died.

“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 Perdue, who now heads the University System of Georgia, declined to comment Thursday. A spokesperson for the university system said Perdue is focused on “serving the students of Georgia.”

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.

The trade group North American Meat Institute said the report distorts the truth and ignores steps companies have taken in spending billions of dollars to refurbish plants and buy protective equipment for workers.

“The House Select Committee has done the nation a disservice,” said the trade group’s president and CEO, Julie Anna Potts. cases associated with the industry as cases rose across the country. Instead, the Committee uses 20/20 retrospective data and selective selections to support a narrative that does not at all represent 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 only wish the Trump Administration cared as much about the lives of workers as it does about meat, pork and poultry products, when we wanted poultry plants to close for deep cleaning to save workers’ lives,” he said. Stuart Appelbaum. , President of the Union of Retailers, Wholesalers and Department Stores.

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.

But JBS spokeswoman Nikki Richardson said the company “did everything possible to ensure the safety of our people who kept our critical food supply chain running.”

Tyson Foods spokesman Gary Mickelson echoed that sentiment, saying Tyson has worked closely with the Trump and Biden administrations, along with state and local officials, to respond to the challenges of the pandemic.

Smithfield spokesman Jim Monroe said the industry reacted quickly and Smithfield has spent more than $900 million to protect workers so far. He said it was appropriate for meat companies to share their concerns with government officials as the pandemic unfolded.

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 measure the temperature of employees 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 meat companies, tried to use Trump’s executive order to prevent state and local health officials from ordering plant closures.

Even with those efforts, US meat production still fell to around 60% of normal during spring 2020 as several major plants were forced to temporarily close for deep cleaning, widespread testing and upgrades. security or operated at slower speeds due to a shortage of workers. . The companies took steps to close plants in consultation with health officials after the outbreaks were confirmed.

“Throughout the pandemic, we have worked hard to maintain safe and consistent operations. At the same time, we have not hesitated to temporarily idle or reduce capacity at processing plants when we determine it is necessary to do so,” Cargill spokesman Daniel Sullivan said.

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.

Early in 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 clearly a major outbreak at the plant because every COVID-19 patient in the hospital worked at the plant or was 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 guidance that included language that effectively made the rules optional because it said recommendations should be made “if feasible” or “when possible.”

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The story has been updated to correct the spelling of former Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s last name in the first reference.

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