The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis has found that major U.S. meat processors made “baseless” claims about meat shortages in order to convince the Trump administration to issue an executive order to keep plants operating as Covid-19 was ravaging the nation in the spring of 2020.
“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 59-page report states. “They nonetheless lobbied aggressively — successfully enlisting [the U.S. Agriculture Department] 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.”
Tyson, Smithfield, and JBS USA were among the companies whose chief executives urged then-Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue in an April 2020 phone call to “elevate the need for messaging about the importance of our workforce staying at work to the [president] or [vice president] level.” They also wanted the administration 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.”
Lawyers for Tyson also drew up a mock executive order. The one that Trump administration settled on, the report states, “adopted the themes and statutory directive laid out in Tyson’s draft.” The company’s draft order was first reported on by ProPublica in September 2020.
At least 269 employees of Tyson, Smithfield, JBS USA, Cargill, and National Beef died due to Covid-19, and more than 59,000 contracted the disease between March 2020 and February 2021, the report notes.
“Despite awareness of the high risks of coronavirus spread in their plants,” the report states, “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.”
Additionally, the report continues, companies complained about “pesky” health departments that stressed the need for coronavirus precautions, and in at least one instance sought to block one such department from addressing an outbreak.