Last month our worst fears were confirmed after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued a pair of COVID-19 safety violation related fines against Big Meat giants China WH-group owned Smithfield Foods and Brazilian-owned JBS. Mismanagement at Smithfield’s meatpacking plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota resulted in almost 1,300 COVID-19 positive tests. Four plant workers died. JBS is equally culpable. At the JBS USA plant in Greeley, Colorado 290 workers tested positive for COVID-19. Six have died.
Ten deaths that should not have happened except for Big Meat’s malaise in the early expansion of the novel coronavirus. The feds published guidelines on preparing workplaces for COVID-19 on March 9. Smithfield president and CEO Kenneth Sullivan could have taken the bull by the horns on March 26 after the local newspaper reported the first COVID-19 case at the Sioux Falls plant. But Sullivan cared more about keeping the lines moving.
At the JBS USA plant in Greeley, management told workers who had COVID-19 symptoms to report to work.
Ten deaths that could have been prevented. But money at Big Meat is the name of the game. Smithfield’s revenues in 2019 were $24.1 billion with profits just shy of $1.4 billion. JBS’ revenues in 2019 were $51.7 billion with net income of $1.61 billion.
Let. That. Sink. In.
There’s no way to sugar coat this. OSHA is inept due to lack of Congressional bird dogging, outdated (some would say ancient) regulations that are ineffective, employees who in the past have shirked their responsibilities, a willingness to give companies the “benefit of the doubt” when it comes to rule breaking, and an unwillingness to advocate for stronger oversight. In short OSHA is a hot mess and it’s not unfair to say that it likely contributed to COVID-19 deaths at the nation’s meatpacking plants due to insufficient oversight.
But don’t just take my word for it. Three workers at the Maid-Rite Specialty Foods plant in Pennsylvania sued OSHA and Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia saying he failed to protect them from imminent dangers of COVID-19.
And what about the deaths at the nation’s other meatpacking plants? The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting reports as of September 19 there have been more than 39,000 COVID-19 cases with at least 185 deaths across 27 states. A total of 419 meatpacking plants. Ten deaths in Sioux Falls and Greeley have resulted in just over $29 thousand in fines. As for the rest? Zero. Nothing. Not a nickel.
In testimony before Congress on May 28 OSHA Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Loren E. Sweatt denied any culpability:
“OSHA's efforts to address COVID-19 have been its top priority since February….OSHA quickly pivoted to focus intensely on giving employers and workers the guidance they need to work safely in this rapidly changing situation; where appropriate, OSHA has also enforced safety and health requirements ...I believe that our current approach allows the agency needed flexibility to be responsive to a virus that we learn more about each day. One example of OSHA's nimble approach is meatpacking. OSHA worked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide meatpacking plants comprehensive guidance to continue operations.”
Keep the lines moving. No matter the guidance was not enforceable.
Smithfield also went into spin control on its website:
“During this pandemic, our entire industry is faced with an impossible choice: continue to operate to sustain our nation’s food supply or shutter in an attempt to entirely insulate our employees from risk. It’s an awful choice; it’s not one we wish on anyone. It is impossible to keep protein on tables across America if our nation’s meat plants are not running. Across the animal protein industry, closures can have severe, perhaps disastrous, repercussions up and down the supply chain. Beyond the implications to our food supply, our entire agricultural community is in jeopardy. Farmers have nowhere to send their animals and could be forced to euthanize livestock, effectively burying food in the ground. We have a stark choice as a nation: we are either going to produce food or not, even in the face of COVID-19.”
But meat workers are screaming from their graves as witnesses to the failures at OSHA and Big Meat.
This is just the tip of the iceberg of what we know about how OSHA and Big Meat and for that matter, the White House responded to the pandemic. The nation needs to know what in the blue blazes is going on. U-S Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker sent a detailed letter to Smithfield, JBS, Tyson Foods, and Cargill looking for answers to Big Meat’s response to the pandemic. So far crickets.
And it’s become increasingly clear that a White House executive ordering naming meat packing workers essential personal but provided no requirements for Big Meat to protect workers from COVID-19 may have also contributed to deaths.
It’s time for Congress to use the full powers at their disposal including investigations and subpoenas to get a complete understanding of how OSHA and Big Meat have interacted with one another throughout the years and how OSHA and Big Meat have come up short in dealing with COVID-19 in 2020. To do less is to guarantee that history will repeat itself.
About Dave Dickey
Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for the Midwest Center covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. His opinions are his own and do not reflect the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.