OSHA and USDA waited until April of last year — more than three months into the pandemic and after a plant shut down because workers fell ill — to plan a response to the rising number of COVID-19 cases at meatpacking plants, according to emails obtained by Public Citizen.

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During the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture bowed to industry pressure, intervening when local health departments threatened to shut meatpacking plants down. And OSHA has taken a largely hands-off approach to plants, often failing to investigate worker deaths.

Now, new emails obtained by Public Citizen through a public records lawsuit and shared with the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, show the early stages of the coronavirus response from the two agencies tasked with overseeing meatpacking plants.

OSHA is charged with protecting worker safety in plants, and the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service employs meat inspectors who work in the plants daily. Its mission does not include worker safety.

“It’s shocking how much OSHA deferred to USDA” during the pandemic, said Adam Pulver, the attorney at Public Citizen who sued for the records.

According to the emails, Loren Sweatt, the head of OSHA under the Trump administration, reached out to Mindy Brashears, the head of USDA’s FSIS, on April 11 and asked if OSHA could be of assistance. The first publicly reported case of a meatpacking worker testing positive was about three weeks earlier.

Sonny Perdue, agriculture secretary under Trump, said repeatedly during the pandemic USDA was not tasked with worker safety.

In the wake of this collaboration, OSHA issued small fines at only a handful of meatpacking plants months after plants were widely known as COVID-19 hotspots and almost 200 workers had died.

Instead, OSHA should have issued hefty fines early in the pandemic and publicized them well, said David Michaels, the head of OSHA during the Obama administration who now teaches at the George Washington University School of Public Health.

“OSHA enforcement is meant to send a message to other employers,” he said, “because OSHA can’t inspect every plant.”

In an email to the Midwest Center, Sweatt defended OSHA’s approach to the coronavirus. She did not answer questions about her actions as laid out in the emails or address meatpacking plants specifically.

“Unfortunately, some critics have chosen to ignore OSHA’s efforts in the name of political gamesmanship – one I will not be playing,” she said. “I respect the work of OSHA’s career staff and their dedication to the mission to protect our nation’s workers. Unlike others, I will not jeopardize any enforcement actions taken by commenting any further.”

Brashears, who took over as FSIS head in March 2020, could not be reached for comment.

The new Biden administration has promised to take a more aggressive stance on worker safety. On his second day in office, President Joe Biden signed an executive order commanding OSHA to review its COVID-19 policies and identify ways to better protect workers.

And the congressional committee devoted to the coronavirus recently announced an investigation into OSHA and the three largest meatpacking companies, JBS, Tyson and Smithfield.

At OSHA, Sweatt has been replaced by Biden’s choice for the job, Jim Frederick. Brashears’ position was vacant as of Feb. 5.

The USDA did not return a request for comment about the emails.

OSHA would not answer questions about what happened under the previous administration. In a statement, it said it was now focused on the health and safety of all workers.

“OSHA is working to re-affirm its commitment to worker safety and re-establish trust that the agency is advocating for workers – including those most vulnerable to the risks of COVID-19,” a Department of Labor spokesperson said.

Delayed response

The federal government had known for years meatpacking plants would likely be hotspots during a pandemic. According to ProPublica, the Bush administration in 2007 warned companies they should be prepared.

On March 23, 2020, Reuters reported a Sanderson Farms employee in Mississippi had tested positive for the virus. Around the country, other meatpacking workers were falling ill, and, in the coming weeks, several plants would report outbreaks.

By April 10, an outbreak involving hundreds of workers forced a JBS plant in Greeley, Colorado, to close. The next day, Sweatt emailed Brashears.

“Apologies in advance for intruding on your Saturday,” Sweatt wrote. “Is FSIS doing guidance for meat packers in the world of Covid-19? If so, is there anything OSHA can do to be of assistance?”

Brashears emailed back to say she’d like to see any guidance documents OSHA had.

Later that day, another OSHA official reached out to members of USDA’s emergency management office.

“OSHA is looking for a USDA contact who could tell us if your agency is doing anything on meatpacking worker safety during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the official wrote.

The emergency management official wrote back that the “appropriate connection” had been made earlier, when Sweatt emailed Brashears.

USDA advice on safety document

In late April, the Centers for Disease Control and OSHA jointly published guidelines for meatpacking plants on how to keep workers safe.

On April 24, two days before their publication, Brashears emailed Sweatt and a CDC official about the soon-to-be-published safety guidelines. Brashears emphasized the importance of keeping plants open.

“As we have reviewed the CDC/OSHA document for meat and poultry establishments, we feel that it would be useful to add the information,” she wrote. “This can help facilitate re-opening and give them a path forward to keep the food supply chain moving.”

The “information” she’s referring to is not included in the emails.

Multiple agencies offering advice is not unusual, said Public Citizen’s Pulver, who used to work for the Department of Labor, and Michaels, the former OSHA head. But USDA’s mission does not include keeping workers safe.

“FSIS has for many years seen industry as their client,” Michaels said. “They’ve never been sympathetic to worker injuries.”

He cited the FSIS’s attempt to speed up production lines in poultry plants during the Obama administration. Poultry plant workers already deal with injuries from repeatedly making the same movements, according to Government Accountability Office reports, and increasing line speeds could exacerbate those injuries.

It’s unclear from the new emails whether the information USDA wanted included ultimately made its way into the guidelines.

Any suggestion that was not about protecting workers should have been “unacceptable,” Michaels said.

“We would never have considered including recommendations other than ones related to worker safety,” he said.

Maximize production

The new emails, as well as previous emails Public Citizen obtained, show that the industry pressured USDA to emphasize that plants were expected to maximize production while dealing with absenteeism from sick and dying workers.

On May 15, Julie Ann Potts, the meat institute’s president and CEO, emailed Brashears California’s guidelines on safely reopening plants. Potts highlighted one part in yellow: practice six-foot distancing “even if this means production slows down.”

Brashears responded three minutes later.

“Thank you so much,” she wrote. “We will discuss ASAP and get back to you.”

Four days later, after a call with industry stakeholders, a USDA official passed along a comment to Sweatt, OSHA’s head: “USDA and its partner agencies need to confirm that the term ‘if possible’ means ‘if possible while also maintaining maximum operating capacity.’”

It’s unclear from the emails who submitted the comment.

The official suggested editing a question for a FAQ about the virus on USDA’s website to include reference to maintaining “safe operations at maximum capacity possible.” That version remained on the USDA’s website as of Feb. 5.