A new Congressional report released last week details how the meatpacking industry worked to keep its plants open during the COVID-19 pandemic despite the fatal risks to its employees. Its largest players — Tyson Foods and Smithfield Foods — spearheaded the efforts, according to emails the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis obtained.
“Meatpacking companies knew the risk posed by the coronavirus to their workers and knew it wasn’t a risk that the country needed them to take,” the subcommittee concluded. “They nonetheless lobbied aggressively—successfully enlisting USDA as a close collaborator in their efforts—to keep workers on the job in unsafe conditions, to ensure state and local health authorities were powerless to mandate otherwise, and to be protected against legal liability for the harms that would result.”
Below, we highlight some of the important emails and pieces of information to know that form the basis of the subcommittee’s new report.
“THEY GIVE ME WHIPLASH!!!! Is there a goddamn shortage or not?!?!?!”
Executives at the North American Meat Institute, the industry’s lobbying organization, were exasperated at Smithfield Foods seemingly changing positions on a potential food shortage over the course of a few days.
On April 12, 2020, Smithfield closed its Sioux Falls, South Dakota, plant and issued a press release in which CEO Ken Sullivan said, “We have a stark choice as a nation: we are either going to produce food or not.” A few days later, Smithfield reached out to NAMI for a quote for another press release that would explain why it continued to export its meat. NAMI struck a different tone about a potential meat shortage in its quote: “As companies like Smithfield continue to operate under difficult circumstances, there will be food to put on the table for families around the world.”
In response to the seeming about-face, a NAMI leader expressed frustration: “THEY GIVE ME WHIPLASH!!!! Is there a goddamn shortage or not?!?!?! Now they are issuing a release to tell importers they have enough meat when they just told the nation they may not have enough meat!”
It does not appear the press release was ever released publicly.
The same executive continued to vent the next day: “Smithfield has whipped everyone into a frenzy and Julie Anna (Potts, NAMI’s president) has to clean up their mess. The industry and Ag interests are furious. Smithfield was demanding NAMI lead a huge ad campaign to thank workers so these workers would come to work. They demanded national TV. Then when the SD plant was closed, they freaked out about shortages. Then last night they wanted us to issue a statement that there was plenty of meat, enough that it was for them to export. You can NOT make it up.”
Another NAMI executive summed up Smithfield’s actions this way: “They look like dummies.”
In response to the Congressional report, Smithfield said, “The concerns we expressed were very real and we are thankful that a true food crisis was averted and that we are starting to return to normal.”
“Toe tag resolutions.”
In late 2020, U.S. Department of Agriculture officials met with Foster Farms, which was the owner of a California meatpacking plant with a large outbreak, and a local health department attempting to close the plant for safety reasons. Foster Farms marked COVID-19 deaths as “resolutions,” according to the subcommittee’s report.
When the local health department brought this up, someone said the fatalities could be considered “toe tag resolutions.”
The subcommittee could not determine who made the remark; it was either someone from Foster Farms or USDA, it said. In an interview with the subcommittee, an official from the local health department said Mindy Brashears — described as the industry’s “go-to fixer” — told the speaker to “stop” and that they’d “talk about this separately.”
“This administration is living in an alternative and dangerous reality.”
While working to keep meatpacking plants open during the pandemic, NAMI executives said keeping schools open would be too risky. “How can you put (students) at risk or risk having them bring the virus home,” one executive wrote to another in July 2020.
Later that month, the same executive wrote, “How can anyone guarantee that schools can ‘safely reopen’ under the circumstances as cases are surging across the USA? Why put students and extended families at risk? This administration is living in an alternative and dangerous reality.”
Top image: This photo from a GAO report on meatpacking plants shows workers during normal working conditions.