Even as thousands of their employees fell ill with COVID-19, meatpacking executives pressured federal regulators to help keep their plants open, according to a trove of emails obtained by USA TODAY and The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.

The emails show how a major meatpacking trade group, the North American Meat Institute, provided the U.S. Department of Agriculture with a draft version of an executive order that would allow plants to remain open. A week later, President Donald Trump signed an order with similar language, which caused confusion over whether local health authorities could close plants due to COVID-19 outbreaks.

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A week before Trump’s order protecting meat plants, industry sent draft language to feds

At the same time, the companies and their trade organizations tried to thwart local health departments’ orders to close plants by asking the USDA to intervene.

The emails were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by Public Citizen and American Oversight and shared with USA TODAY and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. ProPublica, which also requested the emails from the USDA, first reported on the contents Monday afternoon.