Meatpackers misled the public and influenced the Trump administration during Covid, the report said

Meatpackers misled the public and influenced the Trump administration during Covid, the report said

WASHINGTON — The nation’s biggest meatpackers lobbied successfully for the Trump administration to keep processing plants open in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, despite knowing the health risks to their workers, according to a congressional report released Thursday.

Prepared by a select House of Representatives committee, the report describes the extent of the meat industry’s influence on the government’s response to the pandemic, with companies stoking “unfounded” fears of impending meat shortages to prevent plant closures. Tyson Foods’ Legal Department drafted the original version of an executive order issued by President Donald J. Trump in April 2020, declaring processing facilities to be “critical infrastructure.” And industry concerns prompted the government to amend its federal recommendations on workplace safety at a meatpacking plant.

Rep. James E. Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat and chairman of the committee, said the results underscore companies’ interest in prioritizing production over the health of their workers.

“The shameful behavior of business leaders who seek profit at all costs during a crisis and of government officials who strive to do their bidding regardless of the resulting public damage must never be repeated,” he said in a statement.

About 59,000 workers at meatpacking plants contracted the virus from March 1, 2020 to February 1, 2021, and 269 eventually died, the committee said in October.

Meat packers and trade groups pushed back on the findings.

The report “distorts the truth” and “ignores the rigorous and comprehensive measures companies have taken to protect employees and support their critical infrastructure workers,” the North American Meat Institute said.

The report is based on 151,000 document pages; over a dozen calls with meat packers, union officials and former government officials; and employee meetings with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Department of Agriculture.

Slaughterhouses, where people work in close proximity, became major flashpoints in the first few weeks of the pandemic. Plant closures prompted executives at Smithfield Foods and Tyson Foods to publicly warn in April 2020 that the country was at risk of running out of meat.

However, data shows that a record amount of pork was exported to China this month. In emails received by the House Committee, Smithfield’s chief executive noted that there was “a lot of meat” for export, and a representative from the North American Meat Institute described the warnings as “deliberately scaring people.”

The report also details how industry figures have hired senior Trump administration officials to discourage workers from staying at home and softened federal guidelines to control coronavirus outbreaks at meatpacking plants.

For example, in an appeal in April, meat company chief executives asked then-Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to ask the president or vice president to convey to workers 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.

During a White House news briefing four days later, Vice President Mike Pence urged food workers to “show up and do your jobs,” assuring them that the administration is “working with all of your businesses to make sure your workplace is safe.”

The report also described Mindy M. Brashears, former undersecretary for food safety at the Department of Agriculture, as the “go-to person” for the meatpacking industry. According to the report, Ms Brashears at times used her home phone number and email address to contact industry officials – a possible violation of record-keeping regulations.

Neither Mr Perdue nor Ms Brashears immediately responded to requests for comment.

The House Committee also received documents showing Smithfield executives hired senior officials from the Department of Agriculture to propose changes to federal health recommendations for one of its South Dakota facilities in April 2020.

Compared to an original version provided to the Washington Post, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s final guidelines included qualifiers such as “when practicable” and “whenever possible.”

dr Robert R. Redfield, the former CDC director, told the committee that he added the qualifiers “because he was confident in industry concerns” conveyed by Mr. Perdue and his understanding of an impending meat shortage.

Jim Monroe, vice president of corporate affairs at Smithfield, said in a statement that the “concerns we raised were very real.”

“Have we made every effort to share our perspective on the pandemic and its impact on the food production system with government officials? Absolutely,” said Mr. Monroe.

As states and local governments began enacting their own lockdowns, the meatpacking industry sought a solution by proposing a federal policy invoking the Defense Manufacturing Act. Smithfield and Tyson phoned the chiefs of staff with both Mr. Trump and Mr. Pence, and Mr. Trump’s executive order “adopted the issues and legal guidelines established in Tyson’s draft,” the report said.

The executive order did not require meat processing plants to remain open, but reduced legal liability for companies if they followed the coronavirus guidelines.

In a statement, a Tyson spokesman, Gary Mickelson, said the company “has been contacted, received direction from, and worked with a wide variety of federal, state, and local officials — including the Trump and Biden administrations.” , while navigating the challenges of the pandemic.”

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