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Meatpackers drafted Trump order on meat plants during COVID-19

Facing pressure from local health officials over conditions in their plants, meatpacking companies “drafted and pitched an executive order to the Trump White House” to keep slaughterhouses open during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, said a congressional staff report on Thursday. When President Trump issued an order that adopted the industry position, meatpackers exaggerated its scope.

“Even though the executive order did not automatically pre-empt the jurisdictions of state and local health authorities, many meatpacking companies nonetheless attempted to use it as such, insisting that USDA and the CDC/OSHA’s lax parameters governed their conduct exclusively,” said the report by staff workers on the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis.

“Armed with the executive order, a loyal USDA ready to do their bidding and favorable CDC/OSHA guidance, many meatpacking companies proceeded to operate plants without adopting critical coronavirus prevention and mitigation measures over the course of the following months, to the detriment of thousands of vulnerable workers.”

At least 269 meat workers died and more than 59,000 employees of the five largest meatpackers — Tyson Foods, JBS USA, Smithfield Foods, Cargill, and National Beef — were infected by the coronavirus during the first year of the pandemic. The illnesses and deaths were three times higher than previously known. The subcommittee staff said one packer disguised deaths as “resolved cases” in reports to the county health department. The Food and Environment Reporting Network used publicly available data to track COVID-19 in the meat industry in 2020 and 2021 but ended the project when data became too opaque.

“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,” said subcommittee chairman James Clyburn, South Carolina Democrat. “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.”

Some of the largest meat processing plants closed temporarily or slowed production in April and May 2020 because of COVID-19 outbreaks. Meat executives said Trump’s executive order, issued on April 28, was needed to prevent a shortage of protein. “The supply chain is breaking,” said the chairman of Tyson Foods in full-page advertisements just before Trump acted.

The concerns “were flimsy if not outright false,” said the staff report. In retrospect, the meat supply chain was strained but not broken and production recovered quickly, said research published in the journal Meat Science early this week.

A meat industry trade group, which was involved in lobbying for the executive order, said the subcommittee staff “distorts the truth” about the challenge of producing food during a once-in-a-century health emergency. The panel “could have tried to learn what the industry did to stop the spread of COVID among meat and poultry workers,” said Julie Anna Potts, chief executive of North American Meat Institute (NAMI). The industry spent billions of dollars on protective equipment and coronavirus testing at the same time workers said the companies were slow to act or provide equipment such as face masks or even hand soap.

According to the report, the chief executives of Smithfield and Tyson Foods hit on the idea on April 11, 2020, of an executive order that would invoke the Defense Production Act to keep plants open despite coronavirus outbreaks. “The meatpacking companies drafted and pitched an executive order to the Trump White House, which promptly issued it after less than a week of review and revision,” said the subcommittee staff. “The final order that was eventually issued adopted the themes and statutory directive laid out in the meatpacking industry’s draft, invoking the Defense Production Act to ensure meatpacking plants ‘continue operations.’”

“Plants are being closed. Health depts are making decisions … governors are making surprise decisions … Health departments are showing up unannounced at plants,” said an email among NAMI officials during early discussions of an executive order. “It seems to be cascading and our friends at USDA and the VP’s (Vice President Mike Pence) office are not able to stop it.”

By April 21, the meat trade group emailed a copy of the draft executive order written by Tyson Foods to three senior-level Trump appointees at USDA. From April 22-27, “industry representatives and companies were in constant communication with the White House and USDA concerning the proposed executive order,” said the staff report. White House chief of staff Mark Meadows took part in some of the telephone calls. “President Trump had a call with officers of the meatpacking companies who had lobbied for it on the morning the order was issued.”

In the executive order, Trump directed meatpackers to follow CDC guidance on ways to reduce the risk of worker exposure to the virus. Then-Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who oversaw meat inspection but ordinarily had no role in meat plant labor, was named to implement the order. The USDA said it would assure packers followed the CDC guidance and work with state and local officials to allow plants to operate. At that point, at least 16 plants were closed.

“Unfortunately, a number of America’s large meat processors and their workers have been affected by outbreaks of coronavirus,” said the White House on April 28. “In addition, recent actions in some states have led to the complete closure of large processing facilities. This (order) will further ensure that vitally important food processors are able to continue to operate safety and meet the consumer needs of the American people.”

The subcommittee staff report, titled “‘Now to get rid of those pesky health departments,’ How the Trump Administration Helped the Meatpacking Industry Block Pandemic Worker Protections,” is available here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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