*CORRECTION: Originally, this story incorrectly said about a fifth of all OSHA inspections in meatpacking plants between April 2020 and February 2021 were remote. However, data on whether inspections were remote was not available for all inspections during this time period. The story has been updated to reflect that the "about a fifth" figure applies to OSHA inspections for which the agency actually had data on remote inspections.
In April 2020, the coronavirus was tearing through Smithfield Foods' Sioux Falls, South Dakota, pork processing plant. As cases surged, the company's CEO lobbied federal officials to loosen workplace safety measures, newly released emails show.
The plant's outbreak infected more than 900 people and killed two in a six-week period in March and April 2020. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that most of the spread occurred among employees who worked within six feet of one another.
But that didn't stop Smithfield CEO Ken Sullivan from trying to convince U.S. Department of Agriculture officials to weaken proposals recommending social distancing as a way to mitigate the virus's spread.
Information about the crucial early stages of the government's response to COVID-19 in meatpacking plants is still coming out, and Sullivan's emails are the latest look at the way meatpacking company executives pushed for weaker safety measures while their employees suffered the brunt of the pandemic.
“The big players in the industry – the biggest meat companies in the world in fact — used their political muscle with the previous Administration to assure that they could get away with failing to mitigate the spread of COVID 19 in their plants,” wrote Debbie Berkowitz, former OSHA chief of staff and senior policy advisor, in testimony to Congress last month.
Sullivan's emails are among the final batches of records the U.S. Department of Labor released to the consumer advocacy nonprofit Public Citizen after a months-long legal battle.
Other emails Public Citizen obtained have shown that language a powerful industry lobbying group submitted to the USDA appeared in an executive order that allowed many plants to remain open, and that former President Donald Trump's agriculture secretary, Sonny Perdue, personally lobbied to keep plants open, including the Sioux Falls one.
The month of the outbreak, a team of CDC inspectors visited the Sioux Falls plant and produced a list of recommendations for the control of disease spread within the plant.
The CDC sent a preliminary version of the report to stakeholders, including Sullivan and other Smithfield executives.
Sullivan returned it with written annotations, commenting several times on the difficulty of social distancing within the plant and at one point calling it the “single biggest practical difficulty.”
The next day, the report was released, but not before CDC Director Robert Redfield added dozens of “if possible” and “if feasible” clauses, watering down the agency’s recommendations.
But Sullivan wanted the USDA and CDC to loosen the language further, according to the newly released emails.
On May 5, 2020, Sullivan sent an email to Mindy Brashears, USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety.
“I don’t think it serves anyone to have ambiguous guidance or to pretend that perfect social distancing is attainable,” he wrote.
Contribute to our reporting. Do you have information on how Smithfield, or other major meatpacking plant companies, influenced the federal government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic in plants? We’d love to hear from you. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, or contact us securely at MidwestCenter@protonmail.com
He then copied a section of an email from a “major industry participant” that was part of an industry email chain.
“The whole idea that we still have to follow social distancing throughout the plant, in spite of having all recommended PPE, doesn’t just defy logic but is not realistic,” the email reads. “[The CDC] referred to ‘engineering’ solutions which really means building brick and mortar and putting an entirely new face on the industry that will take years, and the economic incentive, to implement....It would seem essential that we regroup and try to determine the next steps to challenge these CDC guidelines, which we all know will become best practices then regulation.”
“Thank you so much for your feedback,” Brashears replied. “We will certainly take this into consideration. We are awaiting the final CDC report and I will be in touch once received. We can discuss both issues at that time. Talk soon!”
Brashears did not respond to a request for comment.
In response to emailed questions from Investigate Midwest, Jim Monroe, Vice President for Corporate Affairs for Smithfield Foods, said Sullivan was seeking clear and consistent worker safety guidelines.
“What you read in this correspondence is the leader of an essential workforce seeking uniform, consistent and practical guidance from health experts on the best way to keep his team – more than 40,000 Smithfield team members who remained committed to our nation’s food security during the most challenging and uncertain days of the pandemic – safe,” Monroe wrote.
Sullivan also emailed Brashears a news article in which South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, who had ordered the shutdown of the Sioux Falls facility, said the issue was out of the state’s hands and that she was “disappointed we never received Smithfield’s plan on how they’re going to implement the CDC’s recommendations for a safe reopening.”
“Governor Noem is making intentionally misleading statements that completely mischaracterize our willingness to respond to their joint South Dakota Dept of Health/CDC April 23rd report,” Sullivan wrote. “As you know, we prepared a response and are perfect [sic] happy to deliver it. We are caught squarely in the middle of a tug of war, in which we have no interest in being a participant. WE NEED HELP!”
In his statement, Monroe did not address a question about the email containing the news article and Sullivan’s request for help.
Perdue Farms questions state testing requirements
Sullivan wasn’t the only meat CEO trying to shape worker safety requirements. Perdue Farms CEO Randy Day also corresponded frequently with Brashears.
In the emails, he appeared primarily concerned with testing requirements in states like Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.
Day attended several meetings with federal and state officials over testing, and he asked that the CDC’s guidance for testing be used in place of stricter state-level requirements.
“The ideal resolution would be required implementation of this CDC guidance nationwide,” he wrote to Brashears. “Is there a path forward, in your mind, to make that happen?”
Andrea Staub, spokesperson for Perdue Farms, said in an email that Day was not advocating for a “looser” approach to testing, but rather for a more consistent approach from state-to-state.
“Inconsistent policies from state to state were not a simple matter of inconvenience for companies, they also made our efforts to communicate with employees about how to stay safe more challenging,” Staub wrote. “For example, in Perdue’s case, it is not uncommon for our employees to live in one state but work in another where coronavirus protocols differed; that’s why, later in 2020 we similarly advocated for a single national strategy for the rollout of vaccines, and for our associates and their families to receive priority as vaccines became available.”
‘We do not intend to conduct an inspection’
The emails also contain a letter from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to Smithfield Foods’ Sioux Falls plant dated April 7, 2020. In the letter, OSHA officials notified Smithfield that the agency had received a complaint of inadequate protections against coronavirus spread.
“We do not intend to conduct an inspection at this time,” the letter reads. “However, because allegations of violations under hazards have been made, we request that you immediately investigate the alleged conditions and make any necessary corrections or modifications.”
This language was often used by OSHA prior to the pandemic when the agency received low-level complaints that didn’t necessitate an inspection, Berkowitz told Investigate Midwest. Asking the employer to correct the issue, and send proof to the agency, was a way to conserve resources while addressing smaller complaints.
But during the pandemic, OSHA used these letters to address more serious coronavirus safety measures, resulting in more “virtual inspections” and fewer inspections overall, despite a large increase in worker complaints.
*Between April 22, 2020, and Feb. 2, 2021, when the first and last virtual inspection occurred, OSHA conducted more than 300 inspections in meatpacking plants. Data on whether inspections were remote is only available for about half of these inspections. Out of all the inspections for which data is available, about a fifth were remote, according to an Investigate Midwest analysis.
The agency did ultimately fine Smithfield the maximum penalty of $13,494 after nearly 1,300 of its Sioux Falls employees contracted coronavirus and four died.
Top photo: From the North American Meat Institute, used in a GAO report on workplace safety and health.