OMAHA (DTN) -- A congressional report released Thursday spotlighted how executives at major meatpacking companies lobbied the Trump administration to require employees to work in spring 2020 when COVID-19 was causing packing plants to shut down due to sick or scared workers.
More than 59,000 employees at Cargill, JBS, National Beef, Smithfield and Tyson Foods were infected by COVID-19, and at least 269 of those workers died as a result.
The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis cited dozens of emails and documents -- often correspondence between USDA, White House officials, executives at individual meatpackers and staff at trade associations such as the North American Meat Institute -- to show the major meatpackers "knew the risk posed by the coronavirus on their workers" -- but lobbied and collaborated with industry to reopen packing plants or prevent local health officials from shutting them down. The report also highlights how industry executives publicly made "baseless" claims" of a pending food shortage while at the same time still exporting high volumes of meat.
EARLY DAYS OF PANDEMIC
April 2020 was chaotic and disruptive, as much of the country was in lockdown, but food and agriculture were given exemptions as essential industries. By mid-April, nearly every major packer had at least one packing plant closed. The Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, responsible for processing about 5% of the country's pork, was shut down, as the plant was considered the single-biggest hot spot for coronavirus infections.
Then-Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said at a White House briefing that empty shelves at stores was a "demand issue, not a supply issue." Companies that were used to selling food to restaurants and other services were having to adjust to get more food in packaging materials for grocery stores.
By April 26, USDA declared meatpackers were facing an "unprecedented emergency," as more than 25% of the country's meat processing capacity had shut down.
INDUSTRY REACTS TO REPORT
DTN reached out to meatpacking companies about the subcommittee report. Nikki Richardson, a spokeswoman for JBS, said, "In 2020, as the world faced the challenge of navigating COVID-19, many lessons were learned, and the health and safety of our team members guided all our actions and decisions. During that critical time, we did everything possible to ensure the safety of our people who kept our critical food supply chain running."
Jim Monroe, Smithfield Foods vice president of corporate affairs, told DTN the company did all it could to both protect workers and to keep meatpacking plants running.
In addition, he said Smithfield acknowledges it was in direct contact with USDA and other government officials to ensure everyone was on the same page.
"More than two years ago, we encountered a first-of-its-kind challenge," he said. "As an essential industry with responsibilities for the nation's food supply, the challenges were particularly profound. We are immensely proud of the true dedication our team members showed to keep nutritious protein available as we took every appropriate measure to keep our workers safe. To date, we have invested more than $900 million to support worker safety, including paying workers to stay home, and have exceeded CDC and OSHA guidelines."
Monroe said the meat-production system is a "modern wonder" but cannot be "re-directed at the flip of a switch."
"That is the challenge we faced as restaurants closed, consumption patterns changed and hogs backed up on farms with nowhere to go," he said.
"The concerns we expressed were very real, and we are thankful that a food crisis was averted and that we are starting to return to normal. Our company has a long heritage in supplying high-quality, nutritious and affordable protein to Americans. Did we make every effort to share with government officials our perspective on the pandemic and how it was impacting the food production system? Absolutely."
North American Meat Institute, the nation's trade association for meat and poultry packers and processors, on Thursday said the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis' partisan report distorts the truth about the meat and poultry industry's work to protect employees during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Julie Anna Potts, president and CEO of the North American Meat Institute, said in a news statement the committee overlooked the work meatpackers did to improve safety for employees.
"The meat institute and its member companies voluntarily provided hundreds of thousands of pages to the committee," she said.
"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 said the committee has "done the nation a disservice" in not learning what meatpackers did to "stop the spread" of COVID-19.
"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," she said.
PACKERS' CONFLICTING MESSAGES
The subcommittee report cited that packers were aware of the high risks of coronavirus infections, pointing to a letter sent by a doctor at a Texas hospital to JBS executives, noting nearly every infection at the hospital was either a JBS employee or a relative.
In conflict between message and action, Smithfield CEO Ken Sullivan was warning in statements by April 12, 2020, that closing packing plants such as the Smithfield facility in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, was "pushing our country perilously close to the edge in terms of our nation's meat supply." NAMI staff viewed Sullivan's comments as "intentionally scaring people." Then, Sullivan and Smithfield executives wanted NAMI to defend the fact that Smithfield was also showing high volumes of pork exports.
"Smithfield has whipped everyone into a frenzy and Julia Anna has to clean up their mess," wrote Sarah Little, a spokeswoman for NAMI, in an email to others on the NAMI staff. "The industry and Ag interests are furious. Smithfield was demanding NAMI lead a huge ad campaign to thank workers so these workers would come to work. They demanded national TV. Then when the (South Dakota) plant was closed, they freaked out about shortages. Then last night they wanted us to issue a statement that there was plenty of meat, enough that it as for them to export. You can NOT make it up."
Yet, Tyson Foods was also warning that "the food supply chain is breaking" in full-page ads in major newspapers on April 26, 2020, and "millions of pounds of meat will disappear" because of closed packing facilities.
At the same time, U.S. pork exports were at a three-year high in April 2020 with both JBS and Smithfield shipping high volumes of pork to China.
Weeks before plant shutdowns, meatpacking companies began coordinating with USDA and the White House to block local and state health directors from shutting down plants. That includes industry communications over President Donald Trump's executive order on April 28, 2020, citing the Defense Production Act to keep plans open. Packers were looking for ways to halt local and state health officials to shut them down. The packers wanted their plants open and also wanted the White House order to exempt them from any liability or damages for following the president's executive order.
Those issues went on for months as companies emailed NAMI and other groups such as the National Chicken Council to have USDA step in to halt local officials. NAMI's Potts asked for then-Vice President Mike Pence to intervene with governors to tell them to keep packing plants operating even with positive COVID tests coming in.
NAMI and companies also worked to prevent workers who quit packing plants during that time from drawing unemployment benefits.
The full subcommittee report can be viewed at https://coronavirus.house.gov/….
In August 2020, DTN reported on a hearing in the Nebraska Legislature about meatpacking workers who died in the early days of the pandemic. https://www.dtnpf.com/….
Todd Neeley can be reached at Todd.Neeley@dtn.com
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Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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