Meat companies lied about shortages, lobbied USDA during pandemic

  • A report by a bipartisan House committee details the response of meat-processing giants to the pandemic.
  • A hospital doctor told JBS that all of his COVID-19 patients were linked to a JBS plant in Texas.
  • According to the report, the companies exaggerated meat shortages to keep workers on site.

Major U.S. meat companies were aware that their locations were hotbeds for coronavirus transmission, but overly imminent product shortages so they could keep workers on site at the height of the pandemic, according to a House committee investigation.

They also lobbied the White House and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to minimize coronavirus safeguards for industry, according to the report, released Thursday by the bipartisan House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis.

Meat processing sites have been a major source of coronavirus outbreaks, sparking a spate of lawsuits. This was largely due to their lack of safety procedures such as social distancing and staff’s inability to work from home.

The report focused on five of the largest meat processing companies in the US: 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 commission said.

The report details how meat processor managers were reportedly aware of the high risks of coronavirus transmission in their factories.

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

“I’m not sure if this situation is being treated with the urgency it deserves,” the doctor continued. “If this factory stays open, your workers will get sick and they could die.”

Claims about meat shortages were ‘deliberately afraid of people’

Despite awareness of outbreaks in some locations, meat processing companies continued to urge their employees to stay on site. In the report, the committee rejected claims that there would be meat shortages if sites were closed as “thin, if not outright untrue. It also said they were “an attempt to justify the operation of meat processing plants under dangerous conditions”.

Smithfield CEO Ken Sullivan said in April 2020 that the closure of meat processing facilities is “pushing our country dangerously close to the brink of our meat supply. It is impossible to keep our supermarkets stocked if our factories are not running.”

But a director of trade association North American Meat Institute said in an email published in the commission’s report that Sullivan “deliberately scared people.” The email also said that three days after his statement, Smithfield had asked the Meat Institute “to issue a statement that there was enough meat,” including enough for export.

“Smithfield has driven everyone insane,” the director added.

The reports from meat processors of impending shortages seemed to come as the companies ramped up their exports. The US exported about 640 million pounds of pork in April 2020, a 22% increase from April 2019, according to data from the Department of Agriculture. Pork exports to China more than quadrupled during that period, the data shows.

The report also outlined how at the start of the pandemic, the meat processing industry “has been actively working to cultivate its very close relationship with USDA” in an effort to minimize coronavirus security measures for the industry. This included the USDA Secretary of State for Food Safety who communicates regularly with industry representatives and lobbyists, via both her personal and government telephone and email, according to the report.

The USDA and meat processors have also jointly lobbied the White House to stop workers from staying home or quitting during the pandemic.

Meatpackers are engaged in a concerted effort with Trump administration political officials to isolate themselves from coronavirus-related surveillance, force workers to continue working in hazardous conditions, and protect themselves from legal liability for any resulting illness or disease. death of employees,” the commission said. wrote.

JBS, Smithfield and the USDA did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.

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