Eli Hoff is a Gary Marx Journalism Fund intern.
In early April last year, former Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue sent a pressing email to South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem. The day before, Smithfield Foods’ meatpacking plant had shut down after COVID-19 ravaged its workforce.
“We need to talk about the unintended consequences regarding the closing of the Sioux Falls pork processing plant,” Perdue emailed. “I would classify as urgent.”
It’s well-established that Trump administration officials wanted meatpacking plants to keep operating, often with industry pressure, as workers fell ill and died by the dozens. But new emails obtained by nonprofit Public Citizen show Perdue personally lobbying to keep plants open, including pressing Robert Redfield, the former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director.
USDA officials were determined to prevent plants with COVID-19 outbreaks from closing, according to the emails. At one point, a high-level USDA official said closures were “unacceptable.” To that end, as the pandemic progressed — and more and more workers died — USDA staff kept Perdue informed of closures around the country and whether local officials were being “cooperative.”
And, although former President Donald Trump had already signed an executive order heavily influenced by the meatpacking industry, Perdue and his staff tried to push through a second one. But, because of redactions in the emails, it is unclear what it might have done.
The major takeaway from the emails was how much Perdue and other high-level officials participated in the effort to keep plants open, said Adam Pulver, the attorney at Public Citizen who has sued the government to release these records and previous batches.
“The biggest surprise was how openly some very high level officials were involved,” he said, “how involved the vice president’s office and the secretary himself was in reaching out to state and local officials to pressure them to continue to let plants put workers at high risk.”
The company Perdue joined the board of in March, Kalera, didn’t respond to emailed requests to connect Investigate Midwest with the former agriculture secretary.
At least 50,000 meatpacking workers tested positive for the virus during the pandemic, and more than 250 have died, according to Investigate Midwest tracking.
Halfway through April last year, Perdue followed up with Redfield after meeting him in person, according to the emails. This was after two major meatpacking plants had closed — JBS’s in Greeley, Colorado, and Smithfield’s in Sioux Falls, South Dakota — but before Trump signed the executive order plants would use to remain open.
Perdue told Redfield in the email he appreciated the CDC director offering to have his team reach out to the local health officials to ensure they were aware of the latest CDC guidance on essential workers.
“We need our local public health authorities to do everything they can to keep the food supply chain operational, and at the same time ensuring the health and safety of employees,” he wrote.
About an hour later, Perdue pinged Redfield again: “Just got the latest info that County Health Authorities are contemplating ordering the closure of Tyson pork plant in Waterloo, IA. Don’t have any other details.”
How, or whether, Redfield responded is not included in the emails. It’s also unclear how much Redfield or his team helped with the effort to educate local public health officials. (Redfield was involved in watering down CDC recommendations for how Smithfield’s Sioux Falls plant should protect its workers, according to USA TODAY.)
The company Redfield now works for, Big Ass Fans, did not return requests to pass along questions to the former CDC director.
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But the emails and previous reporting show the CDC was involved in at least one attempt to counteract what local health authorities thought was best.
About two weeks after Perdue reached out to Redfield, on April 29, 2020, Perdue and Vice President Mike Pence spoke with several top executives of meatpacking companies. One was Hormel’s president, CEO and chairman of the board, Jim Snee.
For several days, Hormel’s plant in Rochelle, Illinois, had been closed, after Kyle Auman, the county’s health director, shut it down. Testing had shown more than a tenth of its workforce were positive for COVID-19. (At least one employee’s death was tied to the outbreak.)
Two days later, an agenda shows Perdue receiving an update about the situation in Rochelle. Along with USDA and company officials, a CDC representative was set to join a conference call with Auman the next day.
After the conference call, Auman felt “very manipulated,” he said later.
“We essentially had to leave Rochelle Foods alone,” he said. “They were using (Trump’s executive order) to keep people working, not to protect public health.”
Hormel did not return requests for comment.
Tyson expressed ‘huge thanks’ to VP
In early April, officials in Pence’s office were keeping tabs on a Tyson chicken plant in Center, Texas.
After COVID-19 cases were discovered at the plant, Tyson employees asked Shelby County Judge Allison Harbison to shut it down. But she didn’t think she had the authority to.
“I do not feel that the Tyson plant is going to close voluntarily,” Harbison told the Texas Department of Health and Human Services on April 7, according to an email she shared with Investigate Midwest. “I feel that since they are an essential business, I do not have the authority to order them to close. Therefore, I feel the order should come from DSHS or Governor [Greg] Abbott.”
The next day, Tyson called an aide to the vice president. In an email detailing the call, the aide said Tyson wanted to “express appreciation to VP” for two things: 1) a press conference where he emphasized how important it was for food supply chain employees to report to work; and 2) resolving the chicken plant issue.
“Gov Abbott’s office called judge. Put judge in touch with Tyson. Tyson walked her thru workforce safety measures. Judge is satisfied,” the aide wrote. “Huge thanks from Tyson to VP.”
Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson said the company appreciated Pence’s public show of support. He did not answer a question about the plant.
“In early 2020, as the pandemic spread, those working to feed America were an important part of the nation’s critical infrastructure,” he said in a statement. “We expressed our appreciation for the Vice President’s public support of essential workers in the food industry. We also appreciated the Vice President’s help in working to clarify the respective roles of federal, state and local governments during the pandemic.”
Gov. Abbott’s press office did not respond to requests for comment.
At least two deaths have been tied to the plant, according to the Texas Tribune.
A ‘crisis averted’
One of the earliest concerns for the USDA was “employee absenteeism” at meatpacking plants, according to the emails. Either because they fell ill or feared catching the disease, workers stayed home in droves early in the pandemic.
Of particular concern for the USDA was the JBS facility in Grand Island, Nebraska.
According to an April 2, 2020, email, JBS had contacted the agency worried that workers would leave and file for unemployment benefits. A USDA official then called Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts to alert him.
“Apparently the NE Gov. will announce this afternoon that Nebraska will not qualify workers for unemployment if they walk away from their job,” the official wrote. “Hopefully this is a ‘crisis averted’ situation.”
Ricketts followed through, according to a video of his press conference that day. (The same month, when local health officials tried to shut the plant down, Ricketts prevented the closure, according to ProPublica.)
A Ricketts spokesperson said Nebraska’s unemployment laws were aligned with “general national practice” in 2017 and “reminders” were provided to the public during the pandemic’s early days.
Worries of setting a ‘precedent’
Soon, attention turned to the JBS beef plant in Greeley, Colorado.
On April 2, 2020, the first COVID-19 case at the plant was reported to health authorities, according to state data, and then the plant was in the throes of an outbreak that would eventually total about 300 positives and six deaths.
A week later, after 9 p.m., an aide to the vice president sent an email to Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, about the situation in Greeley: Gov. Jared Polis wanted to “shut the plant down” for the next few days to test the plant’s several thousand employees.
Around the same time, at 9:30 p.m., another Pence aide passed along a message from Perdue’s chief of staff at USDA. Testing all the workers, and the time it would take to do so, was the sticking point, according to the emails.
“Not only a big concern for the single plant (top 5 slaughter plants in U.S.),” the aide wrote, “but USDA very concerned about larger implications across industry if this sets a precedent.”
Ten minutes later, Nicholas Pottebaum, a special assistant to the president, weighed in on the Greeley situation.
“This type of issue is going to start popping up a lot,” he wrote. But a new guidance would help — “basically advise how to handle it that doesn’t shut down plant nor test all.”
The only person who worked for the president who’s included in the emails, Pottebaum declined to comment on the record.
It’s unclear what Polis’s actual position on closing the plant was. His office didn’t return requests for comment. Around this time, he told local media there needed to be “plans to be able to make sure that [it] can operate with additional support and safety,” according to the Denver Post.
Wide-scale testing at the plant was planned but then scrapped around this time, according to the local TV station, ABC 7.
The state considered the initial outbreak closed in October, but a second one broke out at the plant in November. Colorado health officials considered it finished June 14, according to state data.
An ‘urgent’ email
Almost right after focusing on the situation in Greeley, USDA staff diverted their attention elsewhere.
On April 11, 2020, Smithfield’s Sioux Falls plant was on the verge of closing. Workers had started exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 by late March, and, in the first 10 days of April, confirmed cases at the plant exploded twenty-fold, according to the CDC.
Noem, South Dakota’s governor, and Paul TenHaken, Sioux Falls mayor, wrote a public letter to then-Smithfield CEO Ken Sullivan, recommending the plant close for at least 14 days to allow cleaning and "afford Smithfield time to isolate employees."
The prospect of closing the plant, which processed 5% of the pork consumed in the U.S., seemed to alarm the National Pork Producers Council. That night, without mentioning the plant, a council executive emailed USDA officials with an “urgent request” to speak with Perdue.
"Things are spiraling out of control in the hog sector," the executive wrote. "Producers who I have known for years and who I deeply respect are panicked."
The plant stopped slaughtering animals on Sunday, April 12, according to the CDC, and other operations soon followed.
On that day, officials in Vice President Mike Pence’s office exchanged emails: Perdue wanted to know what the strategy to deal with closing plants was.
“The concern is that this is the 2nd major plant to go down in as many days and more are likely to come,” an assistant to the vice president wrote. “The Secretary would like to understand the strategy to address this so he can support it.” (No strategy is included in the emails.)
The morning after, Perdue started thinking about the closures early. Responding to a summary of how the industry felt about the situation around 7:30 a.m., Perdue asked, “What [can] USDA do to mitigate the current situation?” (Any responses were not included in the emails.)
Then, around 9 a.m., Perdue spoke with pork council leadership, according to the emails. About two hours later, Perdue sent his “urgent” email to Noem asking to talk about unintended consequences.
Noem’s office didn’t respond to a question about Perdue’s email. In a statement, it said the governor “appreciates the work of various partners, including the USDA, CDC, South Dakota Department of Health, Smithfield, and others, to get the facility back up and running as quickly as possible.”
A couple weeks later, USDA put its stamp on the plant’s reopening. A Smithfield executive asked a USDA official if the agency was giving them an “order” to reopen, and the official replied affirmatively, according to a previous batch of emails Public Citizen obtained.
The plant reopened May 7, 2020. More than 1,200 employees tested positive, and at least four died, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.