“The Select Subcommittee’s investigation has found that former President Trump’s policy appointees at the USDA have been working with major meatpackers in an administration-wide effort to force workers to stay on the job despite unsafe conditions during the coronavirus crisis, and even to prevent the imposition of sensible mitigation measures,” the committee’s chairman, U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, said in a statement Thursday.
The North American Meat Institute, an industry trade group, criticized the committee’s report for being “partisan” and saying it “distorts the truth about the meat and poultry industry’s work to protect workers during the Covid-19 pandemic.”
“The House Select Committee has done the nation a disservice. The committee could have sought to find out what the industry was doing to stop the spread of Covid among meat and poultry workers and reduce positive cases linked to the industry while cases were rising across the country. Instead, the 20/20 Committee is using hindsight and cherry-picking data to support a narrative totally unrepresentative of the early days of an unprecedented national emergency,” said Julie Anna Potts, president and CEO of the North American Meat Institute, in a statement.
ignoring the risk
For example, the report noted that in April 2020, a JBS executive received an email from a doctor at a hospital near JBS’s facility in Cactus, Texas, which read: “100% of all Covid-19 -Patients that we have in the hospital are either direct employees or family members[s] Your employees.” The doctor warned: “Your employees will become ill and may die if this factory stays open.”
The emails prompted Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s chief of staff to contact JBS, but it remains unclear if JBS ever responded to the email, the report said.
“This coordinated campaign prioritized industrial production over the health of workers and communities, contributing to tens of thousands of workers becoming ill, hundreds of workers dying and spreading the virus to surrounding areas,” Rep. Clyburn said.
“The shameful behavior of business leaders who seek profit at all costs during a crisis and of government officials who are anxious to do their will regardless of the resulting public damage must never be repeated,” he said.
In an email response to CNN’s request for comment, JBS did not address the doctors’ warning highlighted by the committee.
“In 2020, as the world faced the challenge of navigating Covid-19, many lessons were learned and the health and safety of our team members guided all our actions and decisions. During this critical time, we have done everything possible to ensure the safety of our employees who have kept our vital food supply chain running,” said Nikki Richardson, a spokeswoman for JBS USA & Pilgrim’s.
The investigation found examples of some meatpacking industry executives acknowledging that being transparent about lax mitigation measures and high infection rates in factories would raise alarms.
The report, citing a company email, said on April 7, 2020, National Beef executives discussed not specifically notifying workers if an infected plant worker returned to work with medical clearance, saying they should instead “announce the style of line meetings,” likely referring to announcements made during informal face-to-face gatherings of assembly-line workers, “with the hope that this will not cause additional panic.”
Meatpackers and the U.S. Department of Agriculture “have joined forces at the White House to discourage workers from staying home or quitting,” the report said.
Additionally, meatpackers have successfully lobbied USDA officials to advocate for a Labor Department policy that withholds benefits from its employees if they choose to stay home or quit, while seeking isolation from legal liability, when their employees get sick or die on the job the report.
The investigation found that in April 2020, the CEOs of JBS, Smithfield, Tyson and other meatpacking companies asked Trump Cabinet member and then Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to “increase the need to speak to POTUS about the importance of keeping our workforce at work.” inform or VP level” and to clarify that “fear of Covid-19 is not a reason to quit your job and you are not entitled to unemployment benefits if you do so.”
On April 28, 2020, President Trump signed an executive order directing meatpacking plants to follow worker safety guidance issued by CDC and OSHA to allow processing plants to remain open
“Meat processing plants are critical infrastructure and essential to our country’s national security. Keeping these facilities running is vital to the food supply chain and we expect our partners across the country to work with us on this issue.”
According to the committee’s report, meatpackers and lobbyists were working with the USDA and the White House to prevent state and local health officials from regulating coronavirus precautions on farms.
A USDA spokesman called the content of the report deeply disturbing, saying: “Many of the decisions made by the previous administration are not in line with our values. This government is committed to food safety, the viability of the meat and poultry sectors and working with our partners across government to protect workers and ensure their health and safety is given the priority it deserves.
A spokesman for Perdue, who is currently Chancellor of the University of Georgia, said Perdue “is focused on his new position of serving Georgia students” and had no comment on the committee’s report.
Former President Trump has not responded to CNN Business’s request for comment.
False claims about impending meat shortages
The report called those warnings “weak, if not outright false.”
“Just three days after Smithfield CEO Ken Sullivan publicly warned that closing a Smithfield plant would ‘drive our country perilously close to the edge in terms of our country’s meat supply,’ he urged industry officials to to make a statement that ‘there was an abundance’ of meat, enough . . . to export,” while Smithfield said the same to meat importers, the report said.
The investigation found that industry officials thought Smithfield’s statements about a meat supply shortage were “deliberately frightening people”.
At the time, food experts told CNN Business that while there were meat shortages, various cuts of meat were unavailable at times.
Tyson said in an email reply that he was reviewing the report.
Smithfield said it was taking “all appropriate measures to protect our workers” when it encountered a “first challenge of its kind” two years ago.
“To date, we have invested more than $900 million to support worker safety, including paying workers to stay at home, and have exceeded CDC and OSHA guidelines,” said Jim Monroe, spokesman by Smithfield, in an email to CNN Business.
“The meat production system is a modern marvel, but it is not one that can be redirected at the push of a button. This is the challenge we faced as restaurants closed, consumption patterns changed and pigs were left on nowhere farms. The concerns we raised were very real and we are grateful that a real food crisis was averted and we are starting to return to normal… How has it affected the food production system? Absolutely,” he said.
Cargill and National Beef could not be immediately reached for comment.
“Today’s report confirms what we already knew — the Trump administration’s negligence and unethical actions put America’s meatpacking workers and their families at risk at the height of the pandemic,” the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union said in a statement.
The UFCW, which represents more than 250,000 workers in meatpacking plants, said the findings point to an “urgent need for a comprehensive meat processing safety law.”
“As the union representing the largest portion of America’s meatpacking workers, we are fully committed to ensuring that meatpacking jobs include the health and safety standards these skilled workers deserve, and we urge all lawmakers to take immediate steps to do so.” reach. “
The committee said its report was based on more than 151,000 pages of documents collected from meat packers and advocacy groups, interviews with meat packers, union officials and former USDA and OSHA officials, among others.
— Jennifer Korn of CNN Business contributed to this report