Friday May 13, 2022

American meat producers used “baseless” claims of potential meat shortages to convince Trump administration officials not to implement more stringent safety regulations that would have kept meatpacking workers from contracting Covid-19, according to a new report from the House Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis.

The committee found that the five largest meatpacking firms in the US — Tyson Foods, Inc, JBS USA Holdings, Inc, Smithfield Foods, Cargill, Inc, and the National Beef Packing Company – “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”.

According to the committee’s report, Department of Agriculture career experts were excluded from decision-making processes by political appointees responsible for communicating with state and local health departments, with the political appointees often using personal electronic devices to shield communications with industry groups from federal record-keeping laws.

Specifically, the panel found that industry executives viewed Undersecretary of Agriculture for Food Safety Mindy Brashears as a “go-to fixer” for “blocking attempts by other regulators to improve health and safety conditions in meatpacking plants”.

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“Internal meatpacking industry emails similarly show [Ms] Brashears personally calling and texting with industry representatives, giving them her personal cell phone number, and using her personal email account to communicate with them,” the report said.

As Covid-19 swept through the country in early 2020, meatpacking executives reached out to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue for help in convincing workers to remain on the job regardless of whether they were concerned about getting sick or infecting their coworkers.

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The committee found Mr Purdue participated in a call with top executives from JBS, Smithfield, Tyson and other meatpackers, during which he was asked to “elevate the need for messaging about the importance of [the meatpacking] workforce staying at work” to the attention of then-president Donald Trump or then-vice president Mike Pence.

They asked Mr Purdue to stress to workers that “being afraid of COVID-19 is not a reason to quit your job and you are not eligible for unemployment compensation if you do”.

Shortly after that, Mr Pence told meatpacking workers at a press conference: “We need you to continue . . . to show up and do your job”.

The report found that meatpackers subsequently lobbied USDA to push the Labour Department to implement policies that clarified that employees who quit their job for fear of contracting Covid-19 would not be eligible for any unemployment compensation.

During an April call with Mr Purdue, executives told him workers “should not be entitled to unemployment benefits if they are otherwise able to work through the pandemic” and warned against “creat[ing] an incentive, much less a path, for food industry workers to choose unemployment over producing food”.


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