The Trump administration has been conspiring with the meat industry to keep meatpacking plants open during the pandemic. Workers have paid a heavy price.
On April 28, Trump signed an executive order declaring that the operation of meatpacking plants was a national security priority and directed his administration to "take all appropriate action" to "ensure that meat and poultry processors continue operations." Trump also ordered meatpackers to "continue their operations to the fullest extent possible." At the time, 6,500 meatpacking workers had been diagnosed with COVID-19, and 20 had died.
Four months later, 42,567 meatpacking workers have tested positive for COVID-19, and 203 have died, according to data collected by the Food and Environmental Reporting Network.
Emails obtained by USA Today and ProPublica through the Freedom of Information Act reveal that the substance of the executive order was drafted by the meatpacking industry itself and sent to the White House a week earlier. The draft executive order, produced by the North American Meat Institute, which represents the meatpacking industry, bears "striking similarities" to the one signed by the president a few days later.
While Trump framed the action as an "order" to the meatpacking industry, he was actually doing its bidding. It was part of a larger effort by the industry to enlist the administration to "thwart local health departments’ orders to close plants" that were experiencing significant coronavirus outbreaks.
Smithfield was forced to close a meatpacking plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota on April 12 after 350 workers tested positive for COVID-19. On May 4, a company lobbyist emailed USDA Undersecretary for Food Safety Mindy Brashears and Chief of Staff to the Secretary of Agriculture Joby Young and asked "for a direct order to reopen the Sioux Falls plant." Brashears said the plant could re-open. "Is this essentially an order to re-open?" the lobbyist asked. "We expect you to re-open as soon as possible," Brashears replied. Days later, Brashears emailed other Smithfield executives and said the USDA expected Smithfield to open the plan "immediately."
The Chicken Council, which represents chicken producers, asked Bradshears to help overturn "a local agency’s decision to test all workers at a few plants." The Chicken Council said, "if all workers are tested, many would come back positive and the plants would not be able to operate for at least a week." It's unclear what happened because the USDA redacted the names of the facilities.
22 lives, $29,000
The Trump administration finally took some action this week. But the Trump administration's response was so weak, it only underscored its disregard for the safety of meatpacking workers.
At a JSB meatpacking facility in Greeley, Colorado, "290 workers have tested positive for the coronavirus and seven have died." The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fined the company $15,615 for "a violation of the general duty clause for failing to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards that can cause death or serious harm." The company also "failed to provide an authorized employee representative with injury and illness logs in a timely manner following OSHA’s May 2020 inspection." JSB had $51.7 billion in revenue last year.
OSHA claimed that the fine was the "maximum allowed by law." But that's not true. The figure represents the maximum allowed for a single violation of the general duty clause (plus a few thousand for more minor violations.) But nothing prevented OSHA from finding multiple violations of the clause. Further, had the OSHA found the violations to be "willful," it could have fined JSB more than $140,000 per violation. David Michaels, the head of OSHA from 2009 to 2017, said the department could have easily imposed a multi-million dollar fine.
OSHA was forced to rely on the relatively weak "general duty clause" only because it refuses to issue binding regulations to protect meatpacking workers — or workers in any other industry — from the coronavirus.
Similarly, OSHA imposed a $13,494 fine on Smithfield for failing to protect workers at its plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. 1,300 Smithfield workers contracted COVID-19 at the plant, and four died. Smithfield has annual revenues of $13.2 billion.
These fines are not only a rounding error; they come months into the pandemic.
From the North American Meat Institute's perspective, however, these fines were excessive. In a lengthy response, the industry group criticized OSHA's fines as "confusing and revisionist." The statement claims that the industry's "first priority is the health and safety of its members" but does not acknowledge that thousands of meatpacking workers have been infected and hundreds have died.
Months into the pandemic, meatpacking plants remain key vectors for the spread of COVID-19. In Kansas, for example, "there are seven clusters of the outbreak at meatpacking plants statewide." Across the state, 2,100 workers "are actively infected with the virus and are on leave from the plants." The clusters have already resulted in at least 12 deaths.
Meatpacking facilities are small, enclosed spaces. They are not designed to support social distancing, and the meat industry has resisted slowing down the lines or reconfiguring plants to give workers more space.
Even before COVID-19, meatpacking was one of the most dangerous jobs in America. Each week, two meatpacking workers in the United States have a limb amputated. The workforce is "largely made up of people of color, immigrants and migrants."
Trump's chicken man
Why is the Trump administration bending over backward to cater to the meatpacking industry? Follow the money. Mountaire Farm is one of the largest producers of chicken in the country. Mountaire Farm's CEO, Ron Cameron, is one of Trump's biggest donors.
After donating $2 million to a Super PAC to support Trump's 2016 campaign, and millions more to support Republicans in the 2018 midterms, Cameron is all in on Trump's reelection.
[Cameron] has already donated more than $4.5 million to Republican candidates, committees, and outside groups. This includes over $1 million that directly supports Trump, including $800,000 to America First Action, Trump's new "official" Super PAC, and hundreds of thousands more to Trump Victory and the Republican National Committee.
Cameron can afford it. Mountaire Farms brought in about $2.3 billion last year and is owned almost entirely by Cameron.
In April, Trump named Cameron to a White House advisory group on reopening the country.