The meatpacking industry was one of the horror stories of the early pandemic period. With workers crowded together on assembly lines moving so fast that workers can’t even pause to cover a sneeze or cough, COVID-19 spread quickly. But Team Trump pressed to keep meatpacking plants open, with Donald Trump signing an executive order keeping plants open, supposedly to avert shortages of meat.
Even at the time, there were questions, especially since the warnings about shortages were accompanied by record pork exports to China. Now, the House select subcommittee investigating the pandemic response says that the meatpacking industry misled the public about the threat of a shortage and basically drafted Trump’s executive order keeping the plants open.
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“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,” according to the committee’s report. “They nonetheless lobbied aggressively—successfully enlisting [the U.S. Agriculture Department] 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.”
“The food supply chain is breaking,” the chair of Tyson’s board wrote in a full-page ad that appeared in multiple newspapers in April 2020. But “these fears were baseless,” according to the committee.
The “themes and statutory directive” of a Tyson draft made their way into Trump’s executive order, and “In the days leading up to President Trump’s issuance of the Executive Order, meatpacking industry representatives and companies—Smithfield and Tyson in particular—engaged in constant communications with Trump appointees at USDA, the National Economic Council, and the White House,” according to the committee report, offering a list of calls between the White House and industry executives.
At least 269 meatpacking workers died of COVID-19 in the first 11 months of the pandemic, at least 59,000 contracted the virus, and a 2021 study from a University of California, Davis researcher estimated 334,000 COVID-19 cases connected to the meatpacking industry, with per capita infection rates doubled in counties with large pork or beef processing plants and increased by 20% in counties with large chicken processing plants.
The meatpacking industry wasn’t worried, though. Executives knew they had backing from the Trump administration and that local health officials were walking on eggshells with them. Trump Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar blamed workers for getting sick, even as plant managers pressed workers to come to work no matter what. In one plant, managers even formed a betting pool on the health of their workers, a lawsuit alleges.
Meatpacking workers are a largely immigrant, underpaid, and vulnerable workforce in a dangerous industry. That industry treated them as disposable in the pandemic, with the active collusion of Donald Trump and his underlings, not because the nation’s meat supply was truly at risk but for greater profit.
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