Meat processors used ‘baseless’ claims of shortages to keep plants open during COVID-19: report

Dive Brief:

  • Smithfield Foods and Tyson Foods used “baseless” claims of a meat supply shortage resulting from reduced operations and worker absenteeism in order to justify operating meatpacking plants under “dangerous conditions” in the early months of the pandemic, according to a 61-page House subcommittee report.
  • Concerned over health measures being implemented across the U.S., the report also claimed Smithfield and Tyson “proposed an executive order signed by President Trump that would insulate meatpacking companies from oversight by state and local health departments and provide legal protection against lawsuits for worker illnesses and deaths.”
  • Tyson’s legal team wrote the draft that served as the framework for the April 2020 order to keep meat and poultry processing facilities open.

Dive Insight:

More than two years after the beginning of the pandemic, the meat and poultry industry continues to face criticism over how it responded and the way it treated its workers. Unions, activists, employees and family members criticized the industry for waiting too long to put additional safety measures in place. Some employees who contracted the virus and families of those who died from the coronavirus sued.

In its report released Thursday, the House subcommittee backed up some of those claims. It said the industry put profits over worker safety and benefited from a cozy relationship with the Trump administration in an effort to get around measures put in place by state and local health officials to stop the spread of the virus. The congressional investigation said processors also benefited from Trump political appointees working at the USDA to make decisions that favored the industry while sidelining the interests of consumers, workers and the public.

“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 report said.

The result of its lobbying campaign, the report concluded, led to “tragic” results, with Smithfield, Tyson, JBS, Cargill and National Beef alone facing at least 59,000 worker infections and 269 employee deaths. Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said if the Trump Administration had developed meaningful safety requirements for workers early on, lives could have been saved.

“These employers must be held accountable for the consequences of their blatant disregard of the safety and lives of their employees,” Appelbaum said in a statement. “Today’s report is just one step towards accountability, but much more must be done to prevent corporations from putting profits over people’s lives in the industry.”

In a statement, the North American Meat Institute, the trade association for meat and poultry packers and processors, defended the industry and underscored the work it did to stop the spread of COVID-19 among its workers. “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,” said Julie Anna Potts, the group’s president and CEO.

Gary Mickelson, a Tyson spokesperson, said communication has been key for the Arkansas-based company, and during the last two years it has been in contact with local, state and federal officials, including with both the Trump and Biden administrations. He noted that in 2021, Tyson was supported by the Biden administration in becoming one of the first fully vaccinated workforces in the U.S.

“This collaboration is crucial to ensuring the essential work of the U.S. food supply chain and our continued efforts to keep team members safe,” Mickelson said.

Smithfield Foods did not respond to a request for comment.

In gathering information for the report, the subcommittee received and reviewed more than 151,000 pages of documents; conducted over a dozen survey calls with meatpacking workers, union representatives, former USDA and Occupational Safety and Health Administration officials, and state and local health authorities.

While it’s uncertain what, if anything, will take place because of the scathing congressional report, it’s unlikely to help a meat and poultry industry that has been under fire.

Pork and chicken processors have been hit by criticisms that the few large players have used their clout to manipulate prices, leading to antitrust investigations and settlements. The Biden administration has vowed to crack down on price-fixing in the meat industry and help smaller producers and processors, among others.

Lawmakers, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), have called out Tyson for its profits, stating that it is “bragging” to investors about inflation being a great opportunity for them. At a congressional hearing last month, beef executives were grilled about why their companies were raking in record profits while consumers were struggling. Executives denied there was an agreement in place to fix prices.