May 16, 2022
US House panel says meatpackers persuaded Trump to keep operations open amid the COVID-19 pandemic
A US House panel report said major US meatpackers drafted the executive order issued by US President Donald Trump in 2020 to keep meat plant operations open amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Reuters reported.
The House of Representatives Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis released a report detailing the meat industry's impact on Trump's White House as it attempted to keep operations running despite sick staff.
According to the panel's initial assessment, issued in October, more than 59,000 meatpacking employees at factories owned by the country's top five meatpackers were infected with COVID-19 in the first year of the pandemic, with at least 269 deaths.
James Clyburn, the committee chair Representative, said the behaviour of business CEOs seeking profit at all costs during a crisis and government officials willing to do their bidding regardless of the public's suffering must never be repeated.
The North American Meat Institute said the study "distorts the truth" and "selects data that promotes a narrative entirely unrepresentative of the early days of an extraordinary national emergency.
The investigation showed that in April 2020, meatpacking corporations led by Tyson Foods and Smithfield Foods wrote an executive order using the Defense Production Act (DPA) to keep meat factories running, based on hundreds of papers and interviews with workers, union leaders, and experts.
The US President has emergency powers to oversee the domestic economy under the DPA, which was passed in 1950.
Before the directive was finalised and signed on April 28, the firms forwarded the draft to USDA officials and talked extensively with the White House, USDA, and other administration officials, according to the report.
At the time, industry officials said worker absenteeism was threatening the domestic beef supply.
According to the House investigation, the worries were "baseless." Meatpackers had 622 million pounds of frozen pork in March 2020, according to USDA statistics, and top meatpackers' pork exports increased by as much as 370% in the first year of the pandemic.
Jim Monroe, Smithfield's vice president of corporate affairs, said they made every attempt to express their views on the pandemic and how it was affecting the food agriculture chain with government officials.
Gary Mickelson, a Tyson representative, said worker health and safety is the firm's first concern, and that the company has coordinated with federal, state, and local governments in its pandemic response to safeguard workers.
Meat business executives also pressed the USDA in April 2020 to urge workers to go to factories as absenteeism increased, prompting former US Vice President Mike Pence to make a public statement to that effect, according to the study.
According to the investigation, the industry collaborated closely with political appointee Mindy Brashears, the USDA undersecretary of food safety, and spoke with her via her personal email and mobile phone, potentially violating the Federal Records Act.
Robert Redfield, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also told the House committee that he softened CDC guidance for managing the COVID-19 spread in meat plants by adding phrases like "if feasible" because he was "persuaded by industry concerns" about the guidance's potential impact.