US meatpacking industry hyped food shortage warnings to keep plants open during COVID-19, reveals report
13 May 2022 --- A US congressional investigation accuses meatpacking companies and the USDA, under the Trump Administration, of collaborating in an “aggressive campaign” to force factory workers to remain in dangerous plants with a high risk of coronavirus transmission during the early days of the pandemic.
The Select Sub Committee report revealed its findings yesterday, highlighting how “staying on the job” was the narrative put forward by meatpacking companies and government officials.
The investigation condemns meatpackers’ handling of the coronavirus outbreak and details the influence some sections of the industry had over government officials.
Accusations include how “baseless” food shortage warnings were used to influence the government to keep meat plants open early in the pandemic. There was also heavy lobbying to the Trump administration despite knowing the health risks involved.
“Industry representatives successfully enlisted USDA’s assistance in weakening federal worker protections and insulating facilities from state and local health department regulations,” says James Clyburn, chairman of the subcommittee.
Tyson Foods, JBS USA Holdings, Smithfield Foods, Cargill and National Beef Packing Company have been the subject of the congressional inquiry.
The probe centers on over 59,000 workers for the five companies under the investigation having been infected with the coronavirus and at least 269 dying.
Based on more than 151,000 pages of documents collected from meatpacking companies and interest groups, the report claims that when workers were afraid of high infection rates in plants, meatpacking companies and USDA lobbied the White House to dissuade workers from staying home or quitting.
They also pointed out that workers who refused to turn up to work were not eligible for unemployment compensation unless furloughed.
Initial stages of outbreak
As coronavirus spread worldwide, eventually hitting the US, there were fears that the country was on the brink of a meat shortage as the meat sector grappled with the difficulties of operating plants within social distancing parameters and dealing with large-scale testing and worker absenteeism.
Several meat facilities were temporarily closed at certain points.
The welfare of meatpacking workers was in the spotlight as infections rose and safety concerns increased. US health officials worked with Tyson Foods to test the workforce and drafted extra healthcare initiatives to deal with the crisis.
Meanwhile, the US administration repeated concerns over meat disruptions.
Now the report describes a “coordinated campaign” that 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.”
On April 28, 2020, an executive order was issued as President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to keep meat plants open. Tyson’s legal team drafted the initial order.
Clyburn describes the “shameful conduct of corporate executives pursuing profit at any cost during a crisis and government officials eager to do their bidding regardless of resulting harm to the public must never be repeated.”
How are meat companies responding to the findings?
Generally, the companies stress how they did everything they could to prioritize workers’ safety while keeping food on US tables, also acknowledging how the meat industry was a critical front-line industry – a vital part of the country’s infrastructure – and facing unprecedented challenges in chaotic times.
National Chicken Council (NCC) president Mike Brown says that when COVID-19 reached the US, “it was immediately clear that worker safety would be paramount.”
He says the NCC “regrets” the Committee hasn’t shined a light on industry efforts made and how the NCC stands by its actions and its members during the pandemic.
Brown admits, “The chicken industry was presented with a seemingly impossible task – keep food on the tables and keep workers safe, all in the face of a highly transmissible and all-but unknown virus.”
He describes how the chicken industry was on the front lines, unable to work from home and “absorbed blows as the first wave of COVID-19 swept across the country.”
Brown also says: “There is no ‘hybrid’ option for the workers of the chicken industry.”
“Our workers bravely came into work while member companies diligently implemented protective measures. It is important to remember just how uncertain and chaotic the early days of the pandemic were,” he continues.
The Select Subcommittee began investigating coronavirus outbreaks at meatpacking plants owned by Tyson, JBS, and Smithfield in February 2021 and expanded the investigation in September 2021 to include Cargill and National Beef.
Agri-food titans speak out
A Cargill statement stresses how, throughout the pandemic, it 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 determined it necessary to do so. The well-being of our plant employees is integral to our business and to the continuity of the food supply chain.”
“We operate in a manner that meets or exceeds the federal government’s health and safety standards, and we are proud that key partners among the organized labor and regulatory communities have recognized our efforts to slow the community spread of the COVID-19 virus,” the statement concludes.
Smithfield’s vice president of corporate affairs Jim Monroe tells FoodIngredientsFirst of the profound challenge it faced as part of an essential industry responsible for the nation’s food supply.
“We are immensely proud of the true dedication our team members showed to keep nutritious protein available as we took every appropriate measure to keep our workers safe. To date, we have invested more than US$900 million to support worker safety, including paying workers to stay home, and have exceeded CDC and OSHA guidelines.”
“The meat production system is a modern wonder, but it is not one that can be re-directed at the flip of a switch,” he argues. “That is the challenge we faced as restaurants closed, consumption patterns changed, and hogs backed up on farms with nowhere to go.”
“The concerns we expressed were very real, and we are thankful that a food crisis was averted and that we are starting to return to normal,” he says.
“Did we make every effort to share with government officials our perspective on the pandemic and how it was impacting the food production system? Absolutely.”
FoodIngredientsFirst has also requested further comment from Tyson Foods.
Later in the pandemic, following the vaccine breakthrough, Tyson required its workforce to be jabbed, offering free on-site vaccinations. It also partnered with Marathon Health to pilot seven health clinics near company production facilities. The clinics offered Tyson workers access to healthcare at no cost.
The Committee’s full report is entitled “Now to Get Rid of Those Pesky Health Departments.”
In other sector developments, the Biden Administration is cracking down on US meat giants, aiming to move away from the country’s current system whereby a handful of producers dominate the industry, raise prices, squeeze out farmers and control opportunities.
These updates were reported as part of FoodIngredientsFirst’s coronavirus-dedicated industry insights.
By Gaynor Selby
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