When federal health officials drafted their first recommendations in response to a COVID-19 outbreak at a meatpacking plant, Smithfield Foods CEO Ken Sullivan grabbed his pencil.
It was late April 2020, and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention staff had just toured Smithfield’s Sioux Falls, South Dakota, pork processing plant, where 900 employees had contracted the virus. Two workers had died.
The staff created a list of recommendations. They wrote that the company should spread out dining hall tables, give employees face masks and designate paths where workers would only move one direction.
Sullivan marked up the proposal, scribbling stars next to recommendations that the company couldn’t do in its old plant. He scanned the document and emailed it to Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Greg Ibach, according to internal communications published in a U.S. House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis report released Thursday morning.
“The best we can do in these environments is aggressively mitigate risk, not eliminate it,” Sullivan wrote.
“We are on it,” Ibach responded an hour later.
Sullivan — and other meatpacking executives — got their way, the report’s authors concluded.
The 12-member, Democratic-controlled committee found that Sullivan’s lobbying resulted in “watered-down” guidance from the CDC, setting the stage for weak regulations on all meatpacking plants in the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic. The report argues that meatpacking CEOs — led by Sullivan — convinced President Donald Trump’s agriculture department appointees that the country was heading for a food shortage crisis if the plants didn’t continue running.
At the same time, according to emails obtained by the committee, industry data showed that the country had enough meat in storage for more than a year. In one email, an industry lobbyist even accused Sullivan — her group’s client — of “stoking fear.”
“Meatpacking companies knew the risk posed by the coronavirus to their workers and knew it wasn’t a risk that the country needed them to take,” the authors of the report wrote. “They nonetheless lobbied aggressively—successfully enlisting USDA as a close collaborator in their efforts—to keep workers on the job in unsafe conditions, to ensure state and local health authorities were powerless to mandate otherwise, and to be protected against legal liability for the harms that would result.”
Meatpacking is a particularly important industry in Iowa, the nation’s leading pork producer. Tyson Foods and JBS have large factories dotted throughout the state. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 33,000 Iowans worked in the animal slaughtering and processing industry in 2020.
Plants like these became some of the country’s biggest hotspots for the virus two years ago, largely because they place workers shoulder to shoulder on lines where they cut debone carcasses, according a September 2021 USDA Economic Research Service paper.
The paper compared rural counties where at least 20% of the population worked at a meatpacking plant to rural counties similarly dominated by other manufacturers, like car part makers or paper mills. The report found that those counties with meatpacking plants had 10 times as many COVID-19 cases as the other rural counties from April through July 2020.
As of May 2020, Iowa counties with meatpacking plants had some of the highest COVID-19 infection rates of any county in the country.
Buena Vista County, home to a Tyson pork plant, had the third-highest COVID-19 infection rate in the country, according to the USDA paper. Crawford County, home to a Smithfield plant, had the eighth-highest rate. Wapello County, with a JBS plant, had the 21st highest rate.
The Food & Environmental Reporting Network, which independently tracked COVID-19 cases, estimated that 6,600 Iowa meatpacking employees contracted the virus and 22 died.
In a statement Thursday morning, National American Meat Institute CEO Julie Anna Potts said the subcommittee’s report ignored key facts. She said companies spent billions of dollars to protect workers “while keeping food on Americans’ tables.”
NAMI is the lobbying firm for industry giants, including Smithfield, Tyson and JBS.
“The House Select Committee has done the nation a disservice,” Potts said. “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. 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.”
U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, the chair of the select subcommittee, said in a statement Thursday that federal officials could have decreased the number of illnesses and deaths had they enforced stricter rules on the plants.
“The shameful conduct of corporate executives pursuing profit at any cost during a crisis and government officials eager to do their bidding regardless of resulting harm to the public must never be repeated,” said Clyburn, D-South Carolina.
Sonny Perdue convinced CC director that regulations would create ‘protein shortage’
In mid-April 2020, after objections from Smithfield’s CEO, the CDC issued its recommendations for the Sioux Falls plant. The agency injected several qualifiers into the final edition, including a statement that the recommendations “are discretionary and not required,” according to the subcommittee’s report.
Some career staffers at the CDC objected to the changes.
“It really muddies the guidance, when we start putting these waffle words into it,” Henry Walke, who was the CDC’s incident manager for COVID-19 response, told the subcommittee.
Robert Redfield, the CDC director at the time, told the subcommittee that meatpacking industry leaders convinced him that stricter recommendations would “shut (Smithfield’s Sioux Falls) plant down.” He added that then-USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue made a “very, very passionate presentation.”
“I became convinced that the Secretary of Agriculture’s concerns were right, that if this thing goes on too long, that we are going to have a protein shortage,” Redfield told the subcommittee.
After call with meatpacking CEOs, vice president urged employees to work
Before the Sioux Falls outbreak, meatpacking executives coordinated several calls with high-level White House officials, emails released by the subcommittee show.
Potts, of the National American Meat Institute lobbying firm, sent an email to CEOs of Tyson, Smithfield, JBS, National Beef and other meatpackers on April 2, 2020, to discuss what points they wanted to make in a call with Perdue the next day.
“Our overriding message is how dire a situation we are in if we can’t stem workforce absenteeism during the next few week,” she wrote.
Potts added that they should tell Perdue that they were keeping workers safe and were trying to “incentive” employees to continue showing up.
“We need the Administration’s help in assuring those workers they are valued, protected by appropriate (protective equipment) and sanitation and should not be entitled to unemployment benefits if they are otherwise able to work through the pandemic,” Potts wrote.
Sullivan, the Smithfield CEO, responded to the group that they didn’t need to talk to Perdue about protective equipment.
‘We’re not asking for N-95 masks or anything like that,” he said. “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. All our plants are seeing cases. In the absence of positive messaging about their special role, workers are getting scared.”
He added: “The meatpacking industry, and the entire agricultural complex along with it, are at risk of collapse. We’re seeing it develop before our eyes. We need help with the message!!!”
Five days later, the same group prepped for a call with Perdue and Vice President Mike Pence. Potts urged the CEOs to ask for help convincing their employees to return to the plants. She said that slowing processing lines and shutting down plants was “potentially catastrophic.”
“Fear among your workforce is the greatest enemy we have now,” she wrote.
At a news conference after the call, Pence addressed food industry employees “at every level across the country.”
“You are vital,” he said. “You are giving a great service to the people of the United States of America. And we need you to continue, as a part of what we call our critical infrastructure, to show up and do your job.”
Meat lobby spokesperson: Smithfield Foods is ‘directing the panic’
But, the subcommittee argues in its report, the country did not show signs of a food shortage. The United States exported about 640 million pounds of pork in April 2020, 22% more than it did the same month a year earlier, according to the agriculture department.
As of March 31, 2020, the country had 622 million pounds of frozen pork in cold storage, according to the USDA. Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy researcher Steve Suppan estimated that the supply was enough to last Americans for 14 to 18 months.
On April 12, 2020, when Smithfield announced it would temporarily close its Sioux Falls plant, Sullivan said in a statement that the country was “perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply.” That same month, Tyson took out an ad in the New York Times, Washington Post and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, declaring that “the food supply chain is breaking.”
Internally, despite the fact that they represent Smithfield and Tyson, employees at the National American Meat Institute were scratching their heads, according to emails released by the subcommittee.
“(Sullivan) is intentionally scaring people,” the firm’s spokesperson, Sarah Little, wrote to another employee on April 15, 2020.
“Smithfield has whipped everyone into a frenzy and (NAMI CEO) Julia Anna has to clean up there mess,” Little wrote the next day. “The industry and Ag interests are furious.”
She added that Smithfield had earlier that month asked the lobbying firm to cut an advertisement encouraging workers to continue coming to work, something the group declined to do, according to the emails.
“They demanded national TV,” she wrote. “Then when the (South Dakota) plant was closed, they freaked out about shortages. Then last night they wanted us to issue a statement that there was plenty of meat, enough that it was for them to export. You can NOT make it up.”
“Oh. My. Goodness,” responded Robin Troy, NAMI’s director of conference services and marketing. “Their comm team is a mess.”
“It comes from Ken Sullivan the CEO,” Little wrote. “He is directing the panic.”
“Ugh,” Troy responded. “You can’t mess with people’s bacon — all hell breaks loose.”
Tyler Jett covers jobs and the economy for the Des Moines Register. Reach him at email@example.com, 515-284-8215, or on Twitter at @LetsJett.
This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Meatpackers got Trump administration to limit COVID safety measures