OMAHA, Neb. ( Associated Press) — During the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the meat processing industry worked closely with political appointees in the Trump administration to lift health restrictions and keep slaughterhouses open, even as workers The virus is spreading rapidly in the U.S., according to a congressional report released on Thursday.
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The report of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus pandemic said meat companies insisted on keeping their plants open even though they knew workers were at high risk of catching the coronavirus. The lobbying prompted health and labor officials to reduce their recommendations for the industry and culminated in an executive order President Donald Trump designated meat plants in spring 2020 as critical infrastructure needed to remain open. were.
Democratic Rep. Jim Clyburn, who leads the subcommittee, said the US Department of Agriculture and industry prioritized production and profits over the health of workers and communities as at least 59,000 workers caught the virus and 269 died.
“The shameful conduct of corporate executives chasing profit at any cost during a crisis and government officials eager to do their bidding regardless of the resulting loss to the public should never be repeated,” Clyburn said.
Former Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who now leads the University of Georgia system, declined to comment Thursday. A spokesman for the university system said Perdue is focused on “serving Georgia’s students.”
The report is based on communications between industry executives, lobbyists and USDA officials, and other documents the committee obtained from government agencies, Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods, JBS, Cargill, National Beef, Hormel and other companies. Those firms control 85 percent of the nationwide beef market and 70 percent of pork production.
The North American Meat Institute trade group said the report distorts the truth and ignores steps taken by companies as they spent billions to remodel plants and buy protective gear for workers.
“The House Select Committee has done damage to the country,” said trade group president and CEO Julie Anna Potts. “The committee could try to know what the industry did to contain the spread of COVID among meat and poultry workers, reduce the positive cases linked to the industry, while the cases were rising across the country. Instead, the committee uses a 20/20 vision and cherry-picks data to support a narrative that does not fully represent the early days of an unprecedented national emergency. ,
A major union representing workers at processing plants denounced the way the Trump administration is helping the industry.
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Stuart Appelbaum said, “We only wish the Trump administration cared as much about the lives of working people as it did about meat, pork and poultry products, when we wanted a poultry plant deep clean. Shut down and save workers’ lives.” , 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 wearing masks, installing dividers between work stations and optionally social distancing at their plants. encouraged.
But JBS spokeswoman Nikki Richardson said the company did “everything possible to ensure the safety of our people, who keep our vital food supply chain running.”
Tyson Foods spokesman Gary Mickelson echoed that sentiment and said Tyson has worked closely with both the Trump and Biden administrations, with state and local officials to respond to the challenges of the pandemic.
Smithfield spokesman Jim Monroe said the industry responded quickly, and that Smithfield has spent more than $900 million to protect workers so far. He said it was appropriate for meat companies to share their concerns with government officials as the pandemic unfolded.
But the report cited a message that a Coach Foods executive sent a lobbyist in the spring of 2020, saying the industry should not exceed the temperature of screen employees at the doors 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 closures.
Despite those efforts, U.S. meat production fell by about 60 percent to normal during the spring of 2020 as several major plants were forced to close temporarily for deep cleaning, extensive testing and safety upgrades, or workers. Due to the shortage was operated at a slow speed. Following confirmation of the outbreak, the companies closed the plants in consultation with health officials.
“During the pandemic we have worked hard to maintain safe and consistent operations. At the same time, we have not hesitated to temporarily idle or reduce capacity at processing plants when we have determined it is necessary to do so,” said Daniel Sullivan, a Cargill spokesman.
Documents provided to the committee show that meat companies pushed for the executive order partly because they believed it would help protect them from liability if workers became ill or died – some That’s what a federal appeals court later dismissed in a lawsuit against Tyson over the death of workers at an Iowa plant. Emails show the companies themselves submitted drafts of the executive order to the administration a few days before it was issued.
At the start of the pandemic, meat companies knew the virus was spreading rapidly among their workers because infection rates were very high in the plants and the communities around them. The report said that in April 2020, a doctor at a hospital near a JBS plant in Cactus, Texas, told company and government officials in an email that there was apparently a major outbreak at the plant because each of the hospital had COVID- 19 was the patient. Either worked there or belonged to a worker. “If this factory remains open, your workers will get sick and die,” the doctor warned.
The report also highlights that meat companies aggressively pushed back against safety recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. This led to the final guidance including language that effectively made the rules optional as it stated that recommendations should be made “if possible” or “where possible”.