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Meatpacking Industry Fought Pandemic Safety Measures, Documents Show

New FOIA Documents Paint a Damning Picture of a Reckless Industry

Washington, D.C. – Today Public Citizen released documents, obtained from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in response to a FOIA request, which show how the meatpacking industry vehemently resisted the few attempts by the Trump administration to stop the spread of coronavirus in meatpacking plants last spring.

“It is heartbreaking to see the callousness of the meatpacking industry, pushing back against basic safety measures that could have saved hundreds of lives and helped contain the COVID-19 pandemic. While we knew that meatpacking companies did not take adequate measures to protect their workers and the communities they lived in from the threat of COVID-19, these documents show that the industry actively pushed back against the few steps the Trump Administration took to try to ensure the safety of meatpacking workers and federal inspectors,” said Adam Pulver, attorney at Public Citizen Litigation Group.

While previous documents obtained by Public Citizen showed how the meatpacking industry intensely, albeit unsuccessfully, lobbied the White House and USDA for immunity from liability for their actions and inactions, these new documents paint a damning picture of an industry that rebuked common-sense reporting and public health measures designed to stop the spread of the deadly virus, including:

  • In April 2020, officials in the North American Meat Institute protested USDA’s decision not to send Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) Inspectors who were exposed to COVID-19 into other plants. On April 15, 2020, one NAMI official stated, “We can’t start sidelining individuals at FSIS or in the industry because they may have been exposed. We all may have been exposed at this point.”
  • Later in April 2020, officials at the National Chicken Council complained to USDA that FSIS was asking too many questions about COVID-19 testing at poultry processing facilities, stating the “questions seem to be unnecessary.”
  • Similarly, in May 2020, officials at Tyson complained to USDA that the company had to “spend significant resources … each day when reporting positive team members.”
  • In late-March 2020, the Food and Beverage Issue Alliance developed guidance for industry members stating that, unless state or local governments required it, “physical (social) distancing should be a tool but not a requirement.”
  • Industry officials reported FSIS employees who warned their friends and families about plants with cases of COVID-19, specifically forwarding a personal Facebook post and asking USDA to take disciplinary action against the inspectors.

As of February 2021, there have been at least 45,000 reported positive cases of COVID-19 tied to meat and poultry processing facilities in the U.S. and at least 240 reported worker deaths. Documents previously obtained by Public Citizen and released in February showed that the Trump administration did not involve OSHA in its response until nearly a month after outbreaks began and, even then, reluctantly.