The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis released a report Thursday that says “meatpacking companies engaged Trump Administration political appointees in an aggressive campaign to force workers to remain in dangerous plants with high risk of coronavirus transmission.”
The subcommittee is chaired by Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-SC), who released the following statement with the report:
“The Select Subcommittee’s investigation has revealed that former President Trump’s political appointees at USDA collaborated with large meatpacking companies to lead an Administration-wide effort to force workers to remain on the job during the coronavirus crisis despite dangerous conditions, and even to prevent the imposition of commonsense mitigation measures. This coordinated campaign prioritized industry production over the health of workers and communities and contributed to tens of thousands of workers becoming ill, hundreds of workers dying, and the virus spreading throughout surrounding areas. 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.”
The report is titled “‘Now to Get Rid of Those Pesky Health Departments!’: How the Trump Administration Helped the Meatpacking Industry Block Pandemic Worker Protections.” You can find the full report by clicking here.
The following findings in bullet points are taken directly from the report:
Meatpacking Companies Successfully Enlisted Trump USDA Political Appointees to Advocate Against Health Protections for Workers, While Sidelining Career Staff.
- Meatpacking industry representatives sought to ensure USDA would play a central role in coordinating the national response to the coronavirus crisis, saying in March 2020: “We are fortunate to have USDA/FSIS as our primary regulator. Officials at USDA are moving more quickly than other agencies and representing our industry’s interests in every important interagency conversation.”
- Under Secretary of Food Safety Mindy Brashears was viewed as a go-to fixer in blocking attempts by other regulators to improve health and safety conditions in meatpacking plants. For example, while planning efforts to stymie a local health department order regulating coronavirus measures in a Foster Farms plant, a meatpacking lobbyist told a Foster Farms executive that Brashears “hasn’t lost a battle for us.”
- Career USDA officials told the Select Subcommittee that Brashears and her deputies’ interactions with state and local health departments regarding coronavirus plant safety was “exclusively handled at the political level,” with career staff being “walled off.” Career staff said that Trump political officials left “no paper trail” of their meetings. Internal meatpacking industry emails show that Brashears personally called and texted with industry representatives, even giving them her personal cell phone number and using her personal email to communicate with them.
Meatpacking Companies Worked with Trump USDA Officials to Seek Federal Assurances and Regulations That Would Force Meatpacking Workers to Stay on the Job Despite Unsafe Conditions.
- When workers were afraid of high infection rates in plants, meatpacking companies and USDA jointly lobbied the White House to dissuade workers from staying home or quitting. Top executives of JBS, Smithfield, Tyson and other companies asked Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue in early April 2020 to “elevate the need for messaging about the importance of our workforce staying at work to the POTUS or VP level,” and to make clear that “being afraid of COVID-19 is not a reason to quit your job and you are not eligible for unemployment compensation if you do.” Less than a week later, Vice President Pence issued a direct message to meatpacking workers in a press conference saying that “we need you to continue . . . to show up and do your job,” admonishing recent “incidents of workers absenteeism.”
- Meatpacking companies used USDA officials to “educate” Department of Labor on how to implement benefits provided by pandemic relief legislation “in a way that does not incentivize our workers to stay home instead of coming to work.” For example, in late-March 2020, a meatpacking lobbyist emailed a USDA political official laying out the industry’s position that “Department of Labor (DOL) should be encouraged, as part of its guidance to employees and employers regarding the CARES Act, to clarify that healthy employees will not qualify for unemployment benefits unless their employer furloughs them or lays them off or they satisfy one of the other statutorily identified reasons.” The lobbyist asked that workers be required to meet heightened evidentiary requirements to take advantage of pandemic relief benefits like paid leave.
- Meanwhile, meatpacking companies acknowledged the danger they were putting their workers in, asking for federal liability protection against lawsuits if workers were infected with coronavirus on the job.
Instead of Working with State and Local Health Departments to Keep Workers Safe, Meatpacking Companies Viewed Them as Obstacles in Maximizing Profit at the Expense of Worker Safety.
- In April 2020, meatpacking industry representatives internally lamented scrutiny from state and local health authorities over coronavirus outbreaks, saying: “Plants are being closed. . . . health departments are showing up unannounced at plants . . . and the media reporting is going to create more attention from health departments and governors in other communities IMO. It seems to be cascading and our friends at USDA and the VP’s office are not able to stop it.”
- As late as May 22, 2020, meatpacking industry insiders still viewed state and local health authorities as their enemy, internally acknowledging their goal: “Now to get rid of those pesky health departments!”
- In August 2020, the meatpacking lobbyists and executives enlisted Brashears to try to block attempts by a local health department to suspend operations at a Foster Farms plant after Foster Farms had, for months, refused to impose recommended coronavirus precautions and disguised death counts as “resolved cases” in county reporting.
- According to officials from this health department, someone working for either Foster Farms or USDA referred to these death counts as “toe tag resolutions” during a call with Foster Farms and Brashears’ office, likely alluding to the toe tag that is often put on a corpse at the morgue.
Meatpacking Companies Worked with Political Officials at USDA and the Trump White House to Attempt to Block State and Local Health Department Oversight.
- When a piecemeal approach to shutting down regulatory attempts by state and local health authorities did not completely insulate meatpacking companies, Smithfield and Tyson proposed seeking an executive order from President Trump. Tyson’s legal department drafted the proposed order and an industry representative shared it with allied USDA officials in April 2020.
- Meatpacking industry representatives and companies—Smithfield and Tyson in particular—then engaged in constant communications with Trump appointees at USDA and the White House, including multiple calls between meatpacking CEOs and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows.
- The Executive Order was issued on April 28, 2020, less than a week after USDA officials received Tyson’s draft. It adopted the themes and statutory directive the meatpacking industry had suggested, invoking the Defense Production Act to ensure meatpacking plants “continue operations.”
- Internal emails obtained by the Select Subcommittee show that the day after the order was issued, the Trump White House—apparently expecting gratitude and a show of appreciation from the meatpacking industry—“requested” that meatpacking companies “issue positive statements and social media about the President’s action on behalf of the industry.”
The Select Subcommittee says it based its report on more than 151,000 pages of documents collected from meatpacking companies and interest groups. During the investigation, Select Subcommittee staff conducted over a dozen survey calls with meatpacking workers, union representatives, former USDA and OSHA officials, and state and local health authorities; and held staff briefings with OSHA and with USDA.? The Select Subcommittee also obtained information relevant to the investigation during transcribed interviews with a current CDC official and the former Trump Administration CDC Director.
The Select Subcommittee began investigating coronavirus outbreaks at meatpacking plants owned by Tyson, JBS, and Smithfield in February 2021, and expanded the investigation in September 2021 to include Cargill and National Beef.
The investigation is ongoing.
National Correspondent / AgNet Media, Inc.
Sabrina Halvorson is an award-winning journalist, broadcaster, and public speaker who specializes in agriculture. She is a native of California’s agriculture-rich Central Valley.