OMAHA, Neb. – At the height of the pandemic, the meat processing industry worked closely with political appointees in the Trump administration to stave off health restrictions and keep slaughterhouses open even as COVID-19 spread rapidly among workers, according to a Congressional report released Thursday.
The report by the House's Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis said meat companies pushed to keep their plants open even though they knew workers were at high risk of catching the virus. The lobbying led to health and labor officials watering down their recommendations for the industry and culminated in an executive order President Donald Trump issued in the spring of 2020 designating meat plants as critical infrastructure that needed to remain open.
Democratic Rep. Jim Clyburn, who leads the subcommittee, said USDA officials and the industry prioritized production and profits over the health of workers and communities as at least 59,000 workers caught the virus and 269 workers died.
“The shameful conduct of corporate executives pursuing profit at any cost during a crisis and government officials eager to do their bidding regardless of resulting harm to the public must never be repeated,” Clyburn said.
The report is based on communications between industry executives, lobbyists and USDA officials and other documents the committee received from government agencies, Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods, JBS, Cargill, National Beef, Hormel and other companies. Those firms control 85% of the beef market and 70% of pork production nationwide.
The North American Meat Institute trade group said the report distorts the truth and ignores the steps companies took as they spent billions of dollars to retool plants and purchase protective gear for workers.
One of the major unions that represents workers at the processing plants condemned the way the Trump administration helped the meat industry.
“We only wish that the Trump Administration cared as much about the lives of working people as it did about meat, pork and poultry products, when we wanted poultry plants to shut down for deep cleaning and to save workers' lives,” said Stuart Appelbaum, President of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.
The report said meat companies were slow to take measures to protect workers from the virus and pushed to make government recommendations to require masks to be worn, install dividers between work stations and encourage social distancing in their plants optional.
The report cited a message that a Koch Foods executive sent a lobbyist in the spring of 2020 that said the industry shouldn't do more than screen employees' temperatures at the door of plants. The lobbyist agreed and said “Now to get rid of those pesky health departments!”
To that end, the report said USDA officials – at the behest of meat companies – tried to use Trump's executive order to stop state and local health officials from ordering plant shutdowns.