A House committee examining issues arising out of the COVID-19 pandemic alleged that meatpacking companies enlisted the help of political appointees at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to weaken worker safety and health guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
On May 12, the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis released a new staff report, “‘Now to Get Rid of Those Pesky Health Departments!’: How the Trump Administration Helped the Meatpacking Industry Block Pandemic Worker Protections,” accusing the industry and political appointees of engaging in an aggressive campaign to force workers to remain in plants with a high risk of coronavirus transmission.
The staff report also alleged that USDA political appointees interfered in inspections initiated by state and local health departments.
“This coordinated campaign prioritized industry production over the health of workers and communities, and contributed to tens of thousands of workers becoming ill, hundreds of workers dying, and the virus spreading throughout surrounding areas,” Representative James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), chairman of the select subcommittee, said in a statement.
Meat and poultry industry representatives responded that the staff report “distorts the truth about the meat and poultry industry’s work to protect employees during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“The report ignores the rigorous and comprehensive measures companies enacted to protect employees and support their critical infrastructure workers,” Julie Anna Potts, president and CEO of the North American Meat Institute, said in a statement.
According to the committee staff report, industry officials and USDA political appointees “weakened” the meatpacking worker health and safety guidelines issued by the CDC and OSHA on April 26, 2020. The report alleges that Smithfield Foods obtained a copy of the draft CDC/OSHA guidelines from the South Dakota governor’s office and that Smithfield sought changes to the guidelines, forwarding a marked-up copy of the draft to a USDA political appointee.
The committee also alleges that CDC staff were instructed by the Centers’ director to add qualifiers like “if feasible” to the guidelines’ recommendations. The CDC/OSHA guidelines suggested spacing workers at least 6 feet apart in all directions and placing hand-washing stations or hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol in multiple locations. The CDC and OSHA also recommended adding clock-in/-out stations that are spaced apart to reduce crowding, staggering times for workers to clock in/out, or using alternative touch-free methods of clocking in/out, as well as reducing crowding in break areas by adding partitions to break room tables; identifying alternative areas for break accommodations, such as conference or training rooms; removing or rearranging chairs and tables; or using outside tents for break and lunch areas.
The committee staff also alleged that USDA political appointees “intimidated” Merced County (California) Department of Public Health (MCPH) officials and tried to stop the MCPH from shutting down the Foster Poultry Farms’ plant in Livingston, California.
Meat and poultry processing facilities have been cited by federal and state agencies over the course of the pandemic.
In May 2021, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA)
cited Foster Farms and four staffing agencies for not protecting workers at the Livingston facility from COVID-19, proposing state fines totaling $181,500.
In September 2020, OSHA announced it cited Smithfield Packaged Meats Corp. in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for failing to protect employees from exposure to the coronavirus after at least 1,294 Smithfield workers contracted COVID-19 and 4 employees died in spring 2020.
The agency cited Smithfield with a single violation of the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act and proposed a penalty of $13,494, the maximum allowed by law.
Meatpacking and poultry processing facilities are targets of OSHA’s current COVID-19 National Emphasis Program (NEP), along with healthcare and long-term care facilities; ambulance and home healthcare services; correctional facilities; department stores, groceries, supermarkets, and restaurants; and warehouses and storage facilities.