USDA, Meatpacking Industry Collaborated to Undermine COVID-19 Response, FOIA Docs Show
Documents Obtained by Public Citizen and American Oversight Show Close Coordination, Disregard for Worker Health
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the meatpacking industry worked together to downplay and disregard risks to worker health during the pandemic, as shown in documents uncovered by Public Citizen and American Oversight through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
“While we knew that the meatpacking industry was lobbying the Trump administration to take steps to protect its profits regardless of the cost to workers’ lives, the degree of collaboration these documents show is astounding,” said Adam Pulver, attorney for Public Citizen. “As outbreaks continue to emerge in meatpacking plants, it is stunning to see the cavalier attitude officials took to the health and safety of workers in the early part of the pandemic. To the extent that the USDA impeded the efforts of state and local governments to contain the virus, the blood of meatpacking workers is on their hands.”
“During a global pandemic, Americans should be able to trust that public health experts are drafting public health standards, not big businesses looking out for their bottom lines,” said Austin Evers, executive director at American Oversight. “This is corruption that came at the cost of lives and safety. Making matters worse, we know now that Trump knew the coronavirus was a deadly threat even while he played it down and took steps he knew were at odds with what experts advised.”
In May, Public Citizen and American Oversight submitted FOIA requests to the USDA for communications between the meatpacking industry and USDA officials regarding COVID-19 at those plants, among other things. The USDA released about 400 pages of documents this week in response to the requests. The documents show that:
- The executive order signed by President Donald Trump regarding meatpacking plants, ostensibly invoking the Defense Production Act, was the result of lobbying by the North American Meat Institute, a meat-packing trade association, which prepared what appears to be the first draft of what would become the executive order;
- The North American Meat Institute repeatedly requested that USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue discourage workers who were afraid to return to work from staying home;
- Meatpacking plants asked the USDA to intervene on multiple occasions when state and local governments either shut them down over health and safety concerns or sought to impose worker health and safety standards; and
- Smithfield Foods repeatedly requested that the USDA “order” it to reopen its meat processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D. – despite no legal basis for such an order.
In a related development, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Smithfield’s Sioux Falls plant on Thursday for failing to take adequate steps to contain the virus, leading to the infection of more than 1,200 plant employees and the deaths of four plant workers between March and June.