House Democrats launched an investigation Monday into coronavirus outbreaks in meat processing plants and the Trump administration’s alleged failure to adequately protect workers.

The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis on Monday sent letters to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and to three large processors, JBS USA, Tyson Foods and Smithfield Foods, demanding records related to the outbreaks.

Among other things, the panel asked the processors to provide records about illnesses in their plants and what they did to prevent outbreaks. The panel demanded documentation from OSHA on complaints it had received as well as records of inspections, enforcement actions, citations and fines.

"It is imperative that the previous Administration’s shortcomings are swiftly identified and rectified to save lives in the months before coronavirus vaccinations are available for all Americans,” says the letter to OSHA.

Citing media reports, the letter says that nearly 54,000 workers at 569 meatpacking plants have tested positive for COVID-19, and that at least 45 facilities owned by JBS, Smithfield Foods, Tyson Foods, and Cargill have had 50 or more confirmed cases. Fewer than half those plants have ordered wide-scale employee testing, the letter said.

The letter says OSHA could have imposed enforceable safety rules for companies but instead issued non-binding guidance "that companies are free to ignore."

In the letters to the companies, Subcommittee Chairman Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., said the packers had “refused to take basic precautions to protect their workers, many of whom earn extremely low wages and lack adequate paid leave, and have shown a callous disregard for workers’ health.”

The North American Meat Institute, the processors' trade group, defended the way the companies had dealt with the pandemic. 

“Public health guidance has varied widely around the world and across the United States throughout the pandemic, but more than $1.5 billion in comprehensive protections instituted since the spring successfully cut average case rates for meat and poultry workers five times lower in December 2020 than they were in May, while infections rocketed up by nine times for the general population in the same period,” said NAMI spokeswoman Sarah Little. 

“The meat and poultry industry is focused on continuing these effective protections, reaffirmed by the Biden Administration, and ensuring frontline meat and poultry workers are vaccinated as soon as possible, as employers, unions, civil rights leaders, and governments around the world agree these workers should be among the first vaccinated after health care workers.”

In a statement, Smithfield Chief Administrative Officer Keira Lombardo pointed to "inaccuracies and misinformation in the media" and said it looked forward "to providing the Subcommittee with correct information." 

"From early in the pandemic, we have taken extraordinary measures to protect our team members from the virus and we have met or exceeded the prevailing federal, state and local health and safety guidance, including with personal protective equipment," Lombardo said. 

A Tyson spokesperson said the company has invested "more than half a billion dollars during the pandemic to transform our U.S. facilities with protective measures" such as temperature scanning, workstation dividers and social distancing monitors along with additional pay and benefits for employees. 

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"In addition, we’ve added a Chief Medical Officer to help us safeguard and improve the health of our workforce," a statement from the spokesperson noted. "We’re also using random testing as a tool to find the virus, testing thousands of workers a week, both symptomatic and asymptomatic. This strategy has enabled us to move from defense to offense in our efforts to fight the virus."

A spokesperson for JBS USA said the company will "welcome the opportunity to provide members of the Select Subcommittee information regarding our response to the global pandemic."

"JBS USA provides immediate testing to all symptomatic team members and close contacts, and has conducted more than 45,000 surveillance tests of asymptomatic team members to date," a statement from the spokesperson said. "In addition to the hundreds of safety measures implemented in our facilities, we have voluntarily removed vulnerable population groups with full pay and benefits, covered 100% of all COVID-19 related health expenses for our team members and family members enrolled in our health plan, and offered a $100 incentive bonus for any U.S. team member willing to get vaccinated."

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