The Plot to Keep Meatpacking Plants Open During COVID-19
by Michael Grabell
ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.
Series: On the Line
How the Meatpacking Industry Became a Hotbed of COVID-19
As hundreds of meatpacking workers fell sick from the coronavirus that was spreading through their plants and into their communities in April 2020, the CEO of Tyson Foods reached out to the head of another major meatpacker, Smithfield Foods, with a proposal.
Smithfield’s pork plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, had been hit particularly hard, and state and local officials were pressuring the company to shut it down.
“Anything we can do to help?” Tyson CEO Noel White asked in an email.
Smithfield’s CEO Ken Sullivan replied that he wished there was.
But White had an idea. Would Sullivan like to discuss the possibility of getting President Donald Trump to sign an executive order to keep meatpacking plants open?
So began a high-pressure lobbying campaign by the meat industry, according to a report released Thursday by congressional investigators, leading to one of the most consequential moments in the nation’s COVID-19 response: a presidential order that effectively thwarted efforts by local health officials to shut plants down and slow the spread of COVID-19.
In 2020, ProPublica obtained thousands of emails and other documents showing that the meatpacking industry had ignored years of pandemic warnings, tried to overrule public health officials and exposed vulnerable workers and their communities to COVID-19.
But the new report from the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, along with revelations in a wrongful death lawsuit, make clear that the callousness of meatpacking executives and the level of industry influence over the Trump administration were far greater than previously known.
For example, ProPublica had reported that the meat industry’s trade group shared a draft executive order with the Trump administration that bore striking similarities to the one the president signed days later.
Emails released by the subcommittee now show that the proposed order was drafted by Tyson’s legal department. The goal, according to Tyson’s vice president of government relations, was to shield the company from legal liability.
ProPublica also reported that the meat industry dismissed government warnings to prepare for a pandemic by stockpiling masks and developing plans to space out workers on processing lines.
But documents uncovered in a wrongful death lawsuit filed this week in Iowa show that while Tyson was slow to adopt safety measures to protect U.S. workers, it moved swiftly to do so at its plants in China, with extensive protocols, including a mask requirement and reduced production, in place by mid-February 2020 — more than a month before cases showed up in U.S. plants.
The effect that the meatpacking plant outbreaks had on the early spread of COVID-19 is staggering. ProPublica and other news outlets tracked cases and deaths involving meatpacking workers. But academic researchers have found that by July 2020, about 6% to 8% of all coronavirus cases in the U.S. were tied to packing plant outbreaks, and that by October 2020, community spread from the plants had generated 334,000 illnesses and 18,000 COVID-19-related deaths.
Within the cache of new documents are allegations that meatpacking companies tried to hide cases. As workers began calling in sick at a Tyson pork plant in Waterloo, Iowa, the company’s workplace health managers instructed plant nurses not to record the absences as “COVID-19,” but instead as “flu-like symptoms,” families of deceased workers said in their lawsuit. ProPublica reported extensively on how COVID cases at the plant spread through the community.
Similarly, when local health officials in California investigated an outbreak at a Foster Farms chicken plant, they discovered five additional deaths that had been marked not as fatalities, but instead as “resolved cases” or “resolutions.” Health officials told the subcommittee that during a conference call with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, someone from either Foster Farms or the USDA jokingly called them “toe tag resolutions,” referring to the toe tags that are often put on corpses at morgues.
The new emails demonstrate that the primary goal of some meatpacking leaders was not to protect their employees as they had professed, but to get them to show up to work so they could keep producing meat.
“As an industry we’re doing everything we can to provide as sanitized an environment as possible,” Sullivan wrote to other industry executives in early April. “But, we’re not asking for N-95 masks or anything like that. The ask is for the President, as well as all levels of government, to make more explicitly clear that food and agriculture workers are front line workers fighting the pandemic. The industry needs help, straight from the bully pulpit, to reinforce our patriotic duty to produce food for the country.”
Even after it was clear that dozens of workers were dying, an executive from Koch Foods said in late May 2020 that he thought the only safety measure the chicken industry should be using was to take temperatures. Ashley Peterson, a lobbyist for the National Chicken Council, said she agreed.
“Now to get rid of those pesky health departments!” she replied.
Despite the toll, meatpacking companies have faced little consequence. Several key executives, including Sullivan and White, have either retired or remain in key leadership roles. The companies faced only small workplace safety fines and have used Trump’s executive order to fight lawsuits from workers’ families. The profit margins of four of the largest meatpackers have grown more than 300% since the start of the pandemic, according to the Biden administration.
“The meatpacking industry’s efforts — aided extensively by Trump’s USDA and White House officials — led to policies, guidance, and an executive order that, individually and altogether, forced meatpacking workers to continue working despite health risks and allowed companies to avoid taking precautions to protect workers from the coronavirus,” the subcommittee concluded.
The meatpacking industry on Thursday pushed back on the subcommittee’s findings, saying it distorted the record and ignored the billions of dollars that meatpackers spent on safety measures.
“The Committee could have tried to learn what the industry did to stop the spread of COVID among meat and poultry workers,” Julie Anna Potts, president of the North American Meat Institute, said in a statement. “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.”
The National Chicken Council did not address lobbyist Peterson’s comments but said in a statement that processors “did everything they could to keep their workers safe.” Tyson and Smithfield emphasized that the unique challenges of the pandemic necessitated that they work closely with top government officials.
“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,” Tyson spokesperson Gary Mickelson said, noting that the Biden administration supported the company’s effort last year to have one of the first fully vaccinated workforces in the U.S. Mickelson did not address the lawsuit allegations.
Said Smithfield spokesperson Jim Monroe, “Did we make every effort to share with government officials our perspective on the pandemic and how it was impacting the food production system? Absolutely.”
Foster Farms did not respond to a request for comment.
While most of the previous reporting on the meatpacking industry’s response to COVID-19 relied on documents obtained under public records laws, the subcommittee’s report is based on 151,000 pages of documents that include an extensive trove of internal company emails.
From the beginning, those records show, meatpacking executives used their clout with the USDA to influence health decisions made at the highest levels of the Trump administration.
In March 2020, the industry pushed for the USDA to be involved in the White House Coronavirus Task Force and to help ensure that meatpacking workers were classified as “critical infrastructure” workers so they would be exempted from governors’ stay-at-home orders.
The industry was fortunate to have the USDA as its “primary regulator,” Potts wrote in an email to colleagues. “Officials at USDA are moving more quickly than other agencies and representing our industry’s interests in every important interagency decision,” she said.
Within weeks, Trump’s agriculture secretary, Sonny Perdue, set up a call between the CEOs of Tyson, Smithfield and other meatpackers and Vice President Mike Pence. That same day, during a White House press briefing, Pence heeded the industry’s request to address recent worker absences, telling meatpacking workers to “show up and do your job.”
A spokesperson for the University System of Georgia, where Perdue is now chancellor, declined to comment on his behalf, saying Perdue was now “focused on his new position serving the students of Georgia.”
After Smithfield’s Sioux Falls plant was shut down in April 2020, the emails show, Sullivan took a uniquely aggressive stance, one that even some of his colleagues in the meat industry bristled at.
When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued draft recommendations to reduce COVID-19 at the plant, Sullivan marked up a copy, starring in the margins strategies that he deemed “problematic” for the aging plant. In response, the CDC added multiple qualifiers saying Smithfield should implement the recommendations only “if feasible.”
“It really muddies the guidance when we start putting these waffle words into it,” Dr. Henry Walke, then-director of CDC’s Division of Preparedness and Emerging Infections told the subcommittee, according to excerpts from an interview transcript. “I felt that was watering down our guidance.”
Sullivan and others in the industry meanwhile misled the public about an impending meat shortage that they said would result if plants closed temporarily, the subcommittee said. After the Smithfield plant suspended operations, Sullivan said the closures were “pushing our country perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply.” Days later, however, Smithfield urged the North American Meat Institute to issue a statement to reassure international customers that “there was plenty of meat” for export.
In emails, the trade group’s leaders said Sullivan was “directing the panic” and “intentionally scaring people,” creating a “mess” that they’d have to clean up.
Smithfield spokesperson Monroe said, “The concerns we expressed were very real and we are thankful that a food crisis was averted.”
As the coronavirus spiraled through meatpacking towns, Potts of the North American Meat Institute began to fret, noting in an email that “plants are being closed” and “health departments are showing up unannounced at plants.”
She wrote, “It seems to be cascading and our friends at USDA and the VP’s office are not able to stop it.”
But at almost the exact same moment, Tyson’s CEO was emailing the head of Smithfield about his idea for an executive order.
Within two days, Tyson’s vice president and associate general counsel circulated a draft order that would invoke the president’s powers under a Korean War-era law called the Defense Production Act. And meatpacking executives agreed they should send it to the White House.
Tyson’s vice president of government relations called it a “long shot,” but said, “I think we have a good momentum for a Hail Mary!”
When some in the industry expressed concern that such an ask could come across as “production at any cost,” Potts once again leaned on the industry’s connections with the USDA, sending the draft to top agency officials who passed on the request to the White House.
In the days leading up to the executive order, meatpacking industry representatives were in constant communication with the White House and USDA, the subcommittee records show. Sullivan and White held calls with Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, which were followed by a request from Meadows for White to meet directly with Trump. And the president held a call with meatpacking executives on the morning he issued the executive order.
The order had immediate effect, as health officials in Virginia backed off a recommendation to close a plant and officials in Utah cited the order as the reason they couldn’t shut a plant down.
Thousands of meatpacking workers would continue to crowd into processing plants, risking contracting the virus and bringing it home to their families.
A few months later, when the Trump administration issued plans to reopen schools, executives at the North American Meat Institute privately struck a different tone. They questioned whether bringing students back together without a vaccine — what they had done with meatpacking workers — was a good idea for kids in their area.
“This is just astounding,” wrote Bill Westman, a senior vice president for the trade group. “How can anyone guarantee that schools can ‘safely reopen’ under the circumstances as cases are surging across the USA? Why put students and extended families at risk?
“This administration is living in an alternative and dangerous reality.”