Saying they spent billions of dollars to reverse the course of the COVID-19 virus among their employees, U.S. meatpackers say they reject the findings of a House subcommittee report condemning their actions on worker safety during the first year of the pandemic.
The investigation by the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis found that despite the high risks of infection in processing plants, packers engaged USDA to keep workers on the job and shield themselves from liability.
The subcommittee began the investigation last year following reports that meatpacking companies failed to take adequate precautions to protect their workers during the first year of the pandemic.
It also found that infections and deaths among workers for five of the largest meatpacking companies were significantly higher than previously estimated, with over 59,000 infections and at least 269 deaths.
The North American Meat Institute, which represents meat and poultry packers and processors, contends the “partisan” report distorts the truth about the meat and poultry industry’s work to protect employees.
“The Meat Institute and its member companies voluntarily provided hundreds of thousands of pages to the committee. The report ignores the rigorous and comprehensive measures companies enacted to protect employees and support their critical infrastructure workers,” said Julie Anna Potts, president and CEO of the institute.
The meat and poultry industry, like many industries, was challenged by the pandemic in the spring of 2020, she said.
As more became known about the spread of the virus, the industry spent billions of dollars to reverse the pandemic’s trajectory, protecting meat and poultry workers while keeping food on Americans’ tables and the farm economy working, she said.
“The House select committee has done the nation a disservice. The committee could have tried to learn what the industry did to stop the spread of COVID among meat and poultry workers, reducing positive cases associated with the industry while cases were surging across the country,” she said.
“Instead, the committee uses 20/20 hindsight and cherry picks data to support a narrative that is completely unrepresentative of the early days of an unprecedented national emergency,” she said.
The subcommittee reported internal documents in the meatpacking industry revealed that meatpacking companies engaged in a concerted effort with Trump administration 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 worker illness or death.
Specifically, the investigation found meatpackers:
• Had notice of the acute risks the coronavirus posed to workers in meatpacking plants.
• Made claims of an impending protein shortage that were flimsy if not outright false.
• Successfully enlisted Trump USDA political appointees to advocate against health protections for workers, while sidelining career staff.
• Worked with USDA to force meatpacking workers to stay on the job despite unsafe conditions.
• Worked with USDA and the White House in an attempt to prevent state and local health departments from regulating coronavirus precautions in plants.
• Successfully lobbied USDA and the White House to issue an executive order purporting to insulate them from state and local coronavirus regulations and liability for worker infections and deaths.