Meatpacking companies coordinated extensively with USDA officials and others in the Trump administration to keep their plants running  in 2020 despite the growing risk of coronavirus to their workers, according to a congressional report that is based on internal industry documents. 

The report released Thursday by the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus said the documents “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."

The subcommittee said worker infections and deaths at five of the largest companies — Tyson Foods, JBS, Smithfield Foods, Cargill, and 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.”

The industry urged Trump to issue an executive order using the Defense Production Act to keep plants operating and shield the companies from lawsuits. “Tyson’s legal department drafted the proposed order and the companies, through their industry representative, shared it with allied USDA officials who had previously helped them lobby or interfere with decision-making by other arms of federal and state government,” the report said.

“Even though the Executive Order did not automatically pre-empt the jurisdiction of state and local health authorities, many meatpacking companies nonetheless attempted to use it as such, insisting that USDA and the CDC/OSHA guidance’s lax parameters governed their conduct exclusively,” the report said.

“Armed with the Executive Order, a loyal USDA ready to do their bidding, and favorable CDC/OSHA guidance, many meatpacking companies proceeded to operate plants without adopting critical coronavirus prevention and mitigation measures over the course of the following months, to the detriment of tens of thousands of vulnerable workers,” the report said.

‘Meatpacking companies and their federal allies … worked closely to coordinate public messaging about the effect of the order,” the report said.

“For example, the day after the order was issued, a meatpacking industry representative told her colleagues that the Trump White House, apparently expecting gratitude and a show of appreciation by the meatpacking industry, had ‘requested’ that meatpacking companies ‘issue positive statements and social media about the President’s action on behalf of the industry, about the Order itself and about how it will help ensure the food supply chain remains strong,’”

In a statement, Tyson Foods said its “top priority” during the COVID-19 pandemic “has been and continues to be the health and safety of our team members.

“Over the past two years, our company has been contacted by, received direction from, and collaborated with many different federal, state and local officials – including both the Trump and Biden Administrations – as we’ve navigated the challenges of the pandemic.”

Last year, “Tyson Foods was supported by the Biden Administration as we became one of the first fully vaccinated workforces in the U.S. Our efforts have also included working cooperatively and frequently with local health department officials in our plant communities.”

The North American Meat Institute also defended the industry, but did not mention the efforts surrounding the release of the executive order. After this article was published, NAMI said, “Many groups and companies representing all points in the meat supply chain contributed to the creation of the executive order as part of routine communications between an administration and industry.”

NAMI President and CEO Julie Anna Potts said the report “ignores the rigorous and comprehensive measures companies enacted to protect employees and support their critical infrastructure workers.”

“The House Select Committee has done the nation a disservice,” Potts said. “The committee could have tried to learn what the industry did to stop the spread of COVID among meat and poultry workers, reducing positive cases associated with the industry while cases were surging across the country. Instead, the Committee uses 20/20 hindsight and cherry-picks data to support a narrative that is completely unrepresentative of the early days of an unprecedented national emergency.”

The congressional report also said the companies worked with USDA and the White House “in an attempt to prevent state and local health departments from regulating coronavirus precautions in plants.” 

“As late as May 22, 2020 — well after the efficacy and necessity of coronavirus precautions such as testing, social distancing, and personal protective equipment were widely recognized — an executive at Koch Foods told a meatpacking industry lobbyist that temperature screening was ‘all we should be doing.’ ”

That prompted agreement from National Chicken Council lobbyist Ashley Peterson, who said, “Now to get rid of those pesky health departments!” 

The report also said, citing internal documents, “Companies lobbied the White House to make clear that — despite concerns by state and local health departments — meatpacking companies should not have to address coronavirus risks if it would impact productivity."

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Among the arguments used to weaken Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines was that a shutdown of meat plants would cause a protein shortage. But those claims “were flimsy if not outright false,” the report said.

“To combat what they viewed as unjustified employee ‘absenteeism,’ meatpacking companies aggressively lobbied USDA officials and, using USDA as an intermediary, the White House to discourage workers from staying home,” the report said, citing the industry’s frequent communications with USDA officials who worked on their behalf to water down CDC recommendations.

The report said USDA's then-undersecretary for food safety, Mindy 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" and that "Brashears’ use of her personal phone number and email address in connection with her advocacy of meatpacking company interests may have violated the Federal Records Act."

In addition, “The threat of ineligibility for unemployment benefits by workers if they quit was wielded extensively,” the report said.

In a statement, the National Chicken Council said “NCC member companies faced a daunting task, and they did everything they could to keep their workers safe while keeping food on Americans’ tables. NCC used its unique position as a national trade association to help member companies succeed in this mission.

“We regret that this report failed to shine light on the momentous efforts between industry, government and state and local health officials to keep employees safe and to keep Americans fed during one of the most challenging and uncertain times in our nation’s history.”

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