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Major meat companies lied about impending shortages to keep workers on site at the height of the pandemic, a House committee says

Grace Dean   

Major meat companies lied about impending shortages to keep workers on site at the height of the pandemic, a House committee says
  • A report by a bipartisan House committee details meat-processing giants' response to the pandemic.
  • One hospital doctor told JBS that all its COVID-19 patients were linked to a JBS plant in Texas.

Major US meat companies were aware that their sites were hotbeds for coronavirus transmission but exaggerated impending product shortages so they could keep workers on site at the height of the pandemic, according to an investigation by a House committee.

They also lobbied the White House and the US Department of Agriculture to minimize coronavirus safety measures on the industry, according to the report, which was released on Thursday by the bipartisan House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis.

Meat processing sites were a major source of coronavirus outbreaks, triggering a wave of lawsuits. This was largely down to their lack of safety procedures like social distancing and staff's inability to work from home.

The report focused on five of the US' largest meatpacking companies — Tyson Foods, JBS, Smithfield Foods, Cargill, and the National Beef Packing Company. During the first year of the pandemic, more than 59,000 workers at these companies were infected with the coronavirus and at least 269 died, the committee said.

The report details how meatpacking executives were allegedly aware of the high risks of coronavirus transmission inside their plants.

For example, a doctor at a hospital close to JBS' processing plant in Cactus, Texas, sent an email to a JBS executive on April 18, 2020, saying that "100% of all COVID-19 patients we have in the hospital are either direct employees or family member[s] of your employees."

"I am not sure this situation is being treated with the urgency it deserves," the doctor continued. "Your employees will get sick and may die if this factory continues to be open."

Claims of meat shortages were 'intentionally scaring people'

Despite awareness of outbreaks at some sites, meatpacking companies continued to push for their workers to stay on site. In the report, the committee dismissed claims that there would be meat shortages if sites closed as "flimsy if not outright false. It also said they were "an attempt to justify operating meatpacking plants under dangerous conditions."

Smithfield CEO Ken Sullivan said in April 2020 that the closure of meatpacking facilities "is pushing our country perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply. It is impossible to keep our grocery stores stocked if our plants are not running."

But an executive at trade body North American Meat Institute said in an email published in the committee's report that Sullivan was "intentionally scaring people." The email also said that three days after his statement, Smithfield had asked the Meat Institute to "issue a statement that there was plenty of meat," including enough for export.

"Smithfield has whipped everyone into a frenzy," the executive added.

Meatpacking companies' reports of impending shortages appeared to come as the companies bulked up their exports. The US exported around 640 million pounds of pork in April 2020 – a 22% increase on April 2019, per data from the Department of Agriculture. Pork exports to China more than quadrupled over that time period, the data shows.

"The meat production system is a modern wonder, but it is not one that can be re-directed at the flip of a switch," a Smithfield spokesperson told Insider. "That is the challenge we faced as restaurants closed, consumption patterns changed, and hogs backed-up on farms with nowhere to go. The concerns we expressed were very real and we are thankful that a food crisis was averted and that we are starting to return to normal."

The report also outlined how the meatpacking industry "worked actively to cultivate its very close relationship with USDA" at the start of the pandemic in an attempt to minimize coronavirus safety measures on the industry. This included the USDA under secretary for food safety being in regular communication with industry representatives and lobbyists, using both her personal and government phone and email, per the report.

The USDA and meatpacking companies also jointly lobbied the White House to dissuade workers from staying home or quitting during the pandemic.

"Meatpacking companies engaged in a concerted effort with Trump Administration political officials to insulate themselves from coronavirus-related oversight, to force workers to continue working in dangerous conditions, and to shield themselves from legal liability for any resulting worker illness or death," the committee wrote.

The Smithfield spokesperson told Insider that the company had "exceeded CDC and OSHA guidelines" and had paid workers to stay at home during the pandemic.

"The content of the report was deeply disturbing and many of the decisions made by the previous administration are not in line with our values," a USDA spokesperson told Insider. "This administration is committed to food safety, the viability of the meat and poultry sector, and working with our partners across the government to protect workers and ensure their health and safety is given the priority it deserves."


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