Mary Norkol is a Gary Marx Journalism Fund Fellow.
During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the meatpacking industry mobilized to keep plants open, even as its workers fell ill. It claimed a meat shortage was on the way, and it pushed for legal cover.
Throughout 2020, industry representatives communicated often with top federal officials leading the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its Food Safety and Inspection Service, the agency charged with overseeing plants.
Other than Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, perhaps no other person was more central to the department’s effort to keep plants operating than FSIS’s head, Mindy Brashears.
One Tyson Foods executive said, if its plants continued to face pressure to shut down, “we may need to get Mindy involved.” Brashears “hasn’t lost a battle for us,” another industry executive said in an internal email. In short, she was the meat industry’s “go-to fixer,” a Congressional subcommittee concluded in a May report.
Like other top USDA officials, Brashears has remained largely silent about the USDA’s efforts to keep meatpacking plants running. Through his current employer the University of Georgia System, Perdue has declined several opportunities to speak with Investigate Midwest about his time at the USDA.
But in exclusive interviews with Investigate Midwest, Brashears, 52, defended her actions. Her FSIS tenure — laid bare in tens of thousands of emails Congress obtained, thousands of others Public Citizen sued to collect, and numerous news stories — has been mischaracterized, she said.
For instance, she intervened when a California plant, which would be linked to eight COVID-19 deaths, faced closure. The Congressional report didn’t note why it needed time to shut down. She said that if workers left immediately, the plant’s product could spoil.
“When the Congressional report came out, I mean, I’m not going to say it was untruthful. It was completely misrepresented,” she said. “They called me the ‘go-to fixer.’ I was like, ‘Oh my goodness.’ I guess I’ve been called worse.”
Another problem with the report, she explained, is that it doesn’t show her “reporting back” to industry leaders. This undermines its credibility and overall conclusions, she said.
Brashears’ ties to the meat industry are extensive. Before joining the USDA, for example, she was paid $100,000 for her work during a trial to rebuff an ABC News’ story calling a company’s meat product “pink slime,” according to the Texas Observer. She readily admitted to being friends with industry lobbyists.
But in her telling, she provided effective oversight to an industry in crisis. Despite Congress finding the industry’s claims to a meat shortage were likely overheated, Brashears said she focused on keeping food on Americans’ tables.
“Food security is a matter of national security,” she said. “The industry did email me and other undersecretaries. We were all working together and communicating in that way. But what was happening was … we would get on the phone and say, ‘OK, what resources do you need?’”
Her work focused on procuring hand sanitizer, tests and masks for plants at a time when demand far outstripped supply, she said.
Some — including former Occupational Safety and Health Administration head, David Michaels — called for USDA to take a lead role in worker safety because it had inspectors in every large plant in the country on a daily basis. But worker safety wasn’t her job, Brashears said.
“I had no regulatory jurisdiction over worker safety. There were, you know, requests. People were asking, ‘Why aren’t inspectors looking for worker safety?’ Well, they’re not trained for that.
“We were trying to make sure that everyone was talking and communicating and getting the resources that were needed,” she continued. “Because, going back to our personnel that were in the plants, we wanted them to be safe.”
After the report was released, Brashears said she and her colleagues at Texas Tech University, where she now teaches, were threatened.
“They called me all sorts of names and scared (us) to death,” she said. “It was very hard.”
A Texas Tech police incident report shows “unwanted communications” at the university’s administrative building, but a university spokesperson wouldn’t provide more detail when asked. Brashears also declined to describe the incident further, citing the police investigation.
Brashears said the Congressional report blindsided her because she wasn’t interviewed for it.
“They never reached out to me, never emailed me,” she said. “I would have been more than happy to clarify anything. I was never asked, which baffles me.”
[Read more: The Trump Administration told an Illinois health department to leave Rochelle Foods alone. Then a second COVID-19 outbreak struck the plant.]
The subcommittee had “ample contemporaneous evidence” of Brashears’ actions, a spokesperson said.
“The voluminous evidence cited in the report, more than 150,000 pages, from both governmental and industry sources speaks for itself,” the subcommittee’s spokesperson said in an email to Investigate Midwest. “This investigation’s launch was public and we held a public hearing on the dire conditions in meatpacking plants, but Dr. Brashears did not reach out to the (subcommittee) to share her experiences.”
Worker safety ‘not my area of expertise’
A major criticism of the Trump administration in 2020 was it did very little to prevent meatpacking workers from becoming infected with the virus. OSHA began conducting worker safety inspections remotely, which a government watchdog later found likely led to more dangerous environments for workers.
The USDA also drew scrutiny for its role. Brashears and Loren Sweatt, OSHA’s head at the time, waited months after the pandemic started to begin coordinating, despite both having oversight of meatpacking plants.
The USDA’s regulation of meatpacking plants can be complicated, said Jordan Barab, a high-level Occupational Safety and Health Administration official under former President Obama. OSHA shares oversight of many meatpacking plants with FSIS.
Top officials at the USDA often are tied to the agriculture industry, Barab said. This can be tricky because the department is tasked with both protecting the industry’s interests and regulating its operations.
[Read more: ‘Toe tag resolutions’: Read key takeaways from the new Congressional report on meatpacking’s COVID-19 crisis]
In his experience, Barab said, Republican administrations, such as Trump’s, discourage government intervention in business.
“Obviously,” he said, “you’ve got an ideology that discourages any type of enforcement or any kind of thing that may be seen as hostile to employers.”
Mark Lauritsen saw the ideology play out on the ground. He’s the international vice president and head of the processing and meatpacking division at United Food and Commercial Workers, the union that represents many meatpacking employees across the country.
Trump administration officials, including Brashears, cultivated a “culture of fear” that left workers without protections, he said.
“Early 2020 all the way through when that administration left, it was zero effort to protect workers,” he said. “I don’t care what Brashears says. Our members know. We worked on it. We were in those plants. We know what happened.”
More than 400 meatpacking plant workers have died from COVID-19 during the pandemic, according to Investigate Midwest tracking.
This map shows the locations of meatpacking plant outbreaks since April 2020.
Keeping workers safe and healthy wasn’t her responsibility, Brashears said. Instead, her focus was the safety of USDA inspectors entering the plants.
“Any USDA employee had the option to stay home, no questions asked,” Brashears said. “USDA does not regulate worker safety. It regulates food safety.
“I was not put on the job for worker safety. That’s not my area of expertise,” she continued. “I stayed in the job that I was assigned by Congress to do, to protect the U.S. food supply.”
‘How did you end up at the USDA?’
Brashears said she was raised on a farm in small-town west Texas — she met her husband while showing lambs in high school. She attended Texas Tech University on an agricultural scholarship and then pursued a master’s and doctorate at Oklahoma State University.
She said she’s long been interested in food safety: The day she began her teaching career at the University of Nebraska in the late 1990s, Hudson Foods began recalling 25 million pounds of ground beef — one of the largest food recalls in history. She eventually moved on to Texas Tech.
“I love mentoring students, and I love teaching and educating,” she said. “That’s where my passion is.”
While at Texas Tech University, she accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from the meat industry, according to documents obtained by the Texas Observer. Cargill, one of the country’s largest private companies and a meat processor, paid her for consulting, as did Perdue Farms, a major chicken processing company. Another company also paid her to try to sell a cattle probiotic she developed. For any money she received for research, Brashears told Investigate Midwest the funds were given through a “competitive process.”
After Brashears’ FSIS hiring was announced, a lobbyist for the Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which represents some major meatpacking companies, said she “is great news for us here in the industry,” according to the Observer.
Brashears noted some of her good friends and former students are now industry insiders who pushed the federal agency to keep meatpacking plants open as hundreds of workers died from COVID-19.
For instance, KatieRose McCullough — an executive at NAMI, which provided the Trump administration with the draft executive order to keep plants open — is a former student of hers, Brashears said.
Despite her connections, Brashears said she wasn’t sure why President Trump tapped her to be the Under Secretary of Agriculture for Food Safety, FSIS’s leader. Even before his inauguration, she said, she was asked if she’d consider the position.
“I’m often asked, ‘How did you end up at the USDA?’ ” she said. “And I tell people: ‘I don’t really know.’ I’m not a politician. … At the beginning of 2020, I rolled out a vision at USDA, and one of our foundations was leading with science.”
She took over in January 2019. One major decision she made before COVID-19 hit was approving a rule the meatpacking industry had long sought.
The USDA regulates how fast production lines at plants are allowed to go. Faster line speeds often lead to more injuries, as workers are forced to repeat the same motion over and over again at a faster clip, according to a 2016 Government Accountability Office report. Faster line speeds also may contribute to USDA food inspector injuries, according to the GAO.
But FSIS eliminated limits on how fast pork processing plants could push their production lines under Brashears’ leadership. In early 2020, a judge found the agency failed to consider worker safety while drafting its rule, according to Agri-Pulse.
‘Never did we go and say you must reopen’
More than a year into her tenure, COVID-19 swept through the industry’s workforce. The concern at the USDA’s highest level was plants shutting down. In early April 2020, USDA and White House officials worried in emails about a major JBS plant closing in Colorado setting a “precedent” for the entire industry.
Perdue personally lobbied South Dakota’s governor to keep a Smithfield plant open, and he asked the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for help.
But Brashears facilitated phone calls between the USDA, health departments, and companies to engage “with plants that are on the brink of closure,” according to an April 2020 memo obtained by Public Citizen.
In the interviews, Brashears contested that the calls were used to counteract the will of local public health officials.
“If we were enlisted to override a health department decision, we never would have done it,” she told Investigate Midwest. “We never did. Never did we go and say, ‘You must reopen.’”
[Read more: ‘They think workers are like dogs.’ How pork plant execs sacrificed safety for profits.]
However, health officials in two states said they felt they had no other choice but to allow plants to continue operating after meeting with Brashears and other USDA officials.
In Illinois, a local health director said he felt manipulated into allowing Rochelle Foods to stay open. “We essentially had to leave Rochelle Foods alone,” the director, Kyle Auman, said last year.
After the USDA’s intervention, the plant suffered a second outbreak.
A similar intervention happened at a California chicken plant – Foster Farms – where eight workers died. The plant “enlisted” Brashears to block the Merced County Health Department’s attempts to address a COVID-19 outbreak after Foster Farms “refused” to implement worker protections for months, the Congressional report found.
Health officials told the subcommittee that they left the meeting with the understanding closure wasn’t an option.
Brashears did not deny her involvement in the incident. She said the plant couldn’t safely shut down immediately because chickens in various stages couldn’t be left alone while the plant was vacant. Some would have suffocated, rotted and potentially carried diseases, Brashears said.
Finally, the health department managed to close the plant, but it allowed the plant to remain open for an additional 48 hours, according to the report. This was so employees could prepare for an extended closure, Brashears said.
The UFCW’s Lauritsen said options beyond exposing workers for an additional 48 hours could have been implemented. The chickens could have been euthanized or sold to other companies, he said. (Brashears said everyone who worked those 48 hours had tested negative before entering.)
Even then, Lauritsen said, the plant likely didn’t need 48 hours to close.
The Merced County health department didn’t respond to questions.
‘I want to make sure I uphold integrity’
Public officials are required to conduct business through their government-issued email and phone numbers, which are subject to public records laws.
Early in the pandemic, Brashears gave her personal cell phone number to NAMI’s president. And, on more than one occasion, companies sent “official” communication to Brashears’ work email and “presentations” to her personal email.
When discussing documentation Brashears needed, one Foster Farms executive wrote, “I thought all of this was going to her non-work email?”
Ashley Peterson, a top official at the National Chicken Council, an organization that represents poultry processors, responded that the “presentation from last night went to her personal email” but the “official order went to her work email.”
Brashears described Peterson as a friend and colleague. She had Brashears’ personal email address because they met long before Brashears worked in government, she said.
Brashears said she only found “one” email that should have gone to her work email, but it was “kind of irrelevant.” She said she forwarded it to the USDA.
“I want to make sure that I uphold integrity and make sure everything is really on the level,” she said.
Brashears also admitted to speaking with two industry insiders — NAMI’s McCullough and Wade Fluckey of the Clemens Food Group — through her personal email and cell phone while she was a public official.
She said the communication was not government-related. Both are friends, she said.
“This was in reference to developing a program for students at universities,” she said in an email. “It has nothing to do with government business or COVID.”
In the interviews, Brashears said her relationship with the industry and its leaders while she helmed their regulatory agency was professional.
“I think they have a healthy amount of respect for us,” she said.
Assistant editor/senior reporter Sky Chadde contributed to this story.
Top image: U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue swears in Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety Mindy Brashears in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 29, 2019. USDA photo by Lance Cheung
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