The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis released a new staff report claiming meatpacking companies engaged Trump administration political appointees in an aggressive campaign to force workers to remain in processing plants with high risk of coronavirus transmission. However, the North American Meat Institute states the committee cherry picked data to “support a narrative that is completely unrepresentative of the early days of an unprecedented national emergency.”
The staff report revealed that last year, the Select Subcommittee found that during the first year of the pandemic, infections and deaths among workers for five of the largest meatpacking companies – Tyson Foods, Inc., JBS USA Holdings, Inc., Smithfield Foods, Cargill, Inc., and National Beef Packing Company LLC – were significantly higher than previously estimated, with over 59,000 workers for these companies being infected with the coronavirus and at least 269 dying.
The report adds that internal meatpacking industry documents reviewed by the subcommittee “now illustrate that 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.”
As of early May 2020, coronavirus cases in meatpacking-dependent rural counties rose to be nearly ten times the number of cases in non meatpacking-dependent counties with analogous socioeconomic demographics. A USDA analysis estimated that, by the end of May 2020, counties with high proportions of meatpacking workers accounted for about half of the top 25 and eight of the top ten rural counties with the highest infection rates.
“These outbreaks were likely driven by meatpacking facility conditions that were uniquely susceptible to viral spread, coupled with a failure by meatpacking facilities to blunt the effects of these conditions with coronavirus precautions,” the report states. “The USDA analysis found that the physical proximity of workers was significantly higher in the meatpacking industry compared to other manufacturers, and that proximity was likely the main factor that influenced coronavirus spread within the meatpacking industry.”
A study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that by July 21, 2020, meatpacking plants had driven so much community spread that they were associated with 236,000 to 310,000 coronavirus cases – amounting to six to eight percent of all U.S. coronavirus cases – and 4,300 to 5,200 coronavirus deaths.
“It is clear from the House Oversight Subcommittee report that the Trump Administration chose to prioritize the profits of big companies over the safety of their workers at the height of the pandemic. This is extremely concerning – and further evidence of the Trump Administration’s mismanagement of USDA and the pandemic,” says Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. “In May 2020 as ranking member of the Agriculture Committee, I led my Democratic colleagues in speaking out and expressing alarm about the risks of prematurely reopening plants without protecting workers. In 2021 as chair of the Agriculture Committee, I led the effort to fund worker safety protections in the American Rescue Plan Act – which President Biden and his USDA strongly supported and are now implementing.”
House Appropriations Committee Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Ct., also criticized the meat industry for pressing “baseless” claims of beef and pork shortages earlier in the pandemic to persuade the Trump administration to keep operations running.
“Not only does it highlight the meatpacking industry’s baseless claims that jeopardized the health and livelihoods of hundreds of workers, it demonstrates their willingness to price gouge American consumers in the name of ‘inflation,’” DeLauro says of the report. “Meatpackers warned us in April 2020 that the closure of plants to protect workers’ health would threaten the domestic food supply chain, but that same month U.S. pork exports were at an all-time high.”
Meat industry did make changes
However, a statement from Julie Anna Potts, president and CEO of the North American Meat Institute, a trade organization representing meat processors, says the industry voluntarily provided hundreds of thousands of pages to the committee, and the committee’s work has done the nation a “disservice” with the release of the staff report. NAMI says the report ignores the rigorous and comprehensive measures companies enacted to protect employees and support their critical infrastructure workers.
“The meat and poultry industry, like many industries, was challenged by the pandemic in the spring of 2020. As more became known about the spread of the virus, the meat industry spent billions of dollars to reverse the pandemic’s trajectory, protecting meat and poultry workers while keeping food on Americans’ tables and our farm economy working,” Potts says.
For instance, Tyson has spent $810 million on protection equipment, new technology in its plants and on-site vaccination events once a vaccine became available. Meat processing facilities implemented processes and protocols to help keep essential workers safe, as well as provide emergency response pay and benefits to help employees who weren’t feeling well.
National Chicken Council president Mike Brown states in a statement, “The chicken industry, as with other critical industries, was on the front lines and absorbed blows as the first wave of COVID-19 swept across the country. To be clear, the effects of COVID-19 have been grievous, and no industry sector was spared. But although the challenge was immense, the people who make up the chicken industry showed enormous resiliency and innovative spirit in responding. Workplaces were adapted, and then adapted again as we learned more about the virus. The data show these efforts worked.”
Potts adds, “The Committee could have tried to learn what the industry did to stop the spread of COVID among meat and poultry workers, reducing positive cases associated with the industry while cases were surging across the country. 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.”