Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, more than 400 meatpacking workers have died of the virus, and approximately 86,000 fell ill with it, with many of the most serious cases occurring early in the pandemic, before vaccines were developed and advanced safety protections enacted. In April 2020, President Trump signed an executive order to keep meatpacking plants open, classifying workers at these plants as essential and requiring them to report to work. Now, a congressional report released by staff of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, alleges that two of the world’s biggest meat manufactures—Tyson Foods and Smithfield Foods—served as instigators behind the president’s executive order.
The report cites emails between Tyson Foods CEO Noel White and Smithfield CEO Ken Sullivan that allegedly show a conversation between the two executives pondering how to keep the plants open. In one, White allegedly asks if his business colleague would like to “discuss the possibility of getting President Donald Trump to sign an executive order to keep meatpacking plants open.”
The House report says that this correspondence led to a “high-pressure” lobbying campaign by the meat industry, which ultimately led to what it describes as “a presidential order that effectively thwarted efforts by local health officials to shut plants down and slow the spread of COVID-19.”
Furthermore, the report alleges that Tyson lawyers, in coordination with Smithfield Foods, drafted an early version of the executive order, providing the specific language that would eventually make its way into Trump’s unprecedented order. The report also alleges that, during a call with USDA Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue in early April 2020, meatpacking CEOs stressed that workers should not be entitled to unemployment benefits if they are otherwise able to work through the pandemic and cautioned against “creating an incentive, much less a path, for food industry workers to choose unemployment over producing food.”
Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the subcommittee chairman, said in a prepared statement, “The shameful conduct of corporate executives pursuing profit at any cost during a crisis and government officials eager to do their bidding regardless of resulting harm to the public must never be repeated.”
The information in the report was collected from more than 151,000 pages of documents provided by meatpacking companies and interest groups, plus interviews with meatpacking workers, union representatives, former federal officials, and state and local health authorities.
Requests for comment from the two meat manufacturers were not immediately returned; however, both companies have released statements defending their safety efforts during the pandemic, though not mentioning any aspect of the report.
Jim Monroe, a spokesperson for Smithfield Foods, noted the COVID-19 pandemic presented a “first-of-its-kind challenge,” and added that the company has invested more than $900 million in worker safety.
Gary Mickelson, Tyson’s director of public relations, released a statement praising the company’s work with government officials since the pandemic began. “This collaboration is crucial to ensuring the essential work of the U.S. food supply chain and our continued efforts to keep team members safe,” he said. “For example, last year Tyson Foods was supported by the Biden Administration as we became one of the first fully vaccinated workforces in the U.S. Our efforts have also included working cooperatively and frequently with local health department officials in our plant communities.”