We now know that meat packing giants lied about potential shortages of beef, pork, and chicken in order to keep operating unsafely, which likely killed thousands of their workers.
It appears that more than 100 years after Upton Sinclair first published The Jungle, the meat packing industry remains a seething den of vile putrescence:
The biggest players in the U.S. meat industry pressed “baseless” claims of beef and pork shortages early in the pandemic to persuade the Trump White House to keep processing plants running, disregarding the coronavirus risks that eventually killed at least 269 workers, according to a special House committee investigating the nation’s pandemic response.
In a report released Thursday, the committee alleges that Tyson Foods’s legal team prepared a draft with input from other companies that became the basis for an executive order to keep the plants open that the Trump administration issued in April 2020, making it difficult for workers to stay home.
“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 report by the select subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis. “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 report alleges the nation’s largest meatpackers and industry trade groups repeatedly misled the public when they warned that any slowdown in their operations posed an imminent threat to the nation’s meat supplies. But “these fears were baseless,” investigators wrote.
Internal industry documents showed that “despite awareness of the high risks of coronavirus spread in their plants, meatpacking companies engaged in a concerted effort with Trump Administration political officials to insulate themselves from coronavirus-related oversight, to force workers to continue working in dangerous conditions, and to shield themselves from legal liability for any resulting worker illness or death,” the report states.
An estimated 334,000 coronavirus cases nationwide have been tied to meatpacking plants, resulting in more than $11 billion in economic damage, according to research from the University of California at Davis. Researchers found that per capita infection rates in counties that housed beef- and pork-processing facilities were twice as high. In counties with chicken-processing facilities, the transmission rate was 20 percent higher.
Publicly, meat industry lobbyists and executives raised alarms about the threat that plant closures would present to the nation’s food supply chain. The concerns about worker absenteeism hampering production came as the virus first swept across the country, and the government unleashed an unprecedented flood of unemployment benefits to support workers.
But that same month, U.S. pork exports were at a three-year high, the report found. In the first three quarters of 2020, JBS exported 370 percent more pork to China than it had in the same period of 2017; Smithfield reported a 90 percent increase during the same window.
“These employers must be held accountable for the consequences of their blatant disregard of the safety and lives of their employees,” Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said Thursday in a statement. “Today’s report is just one step towards accountability, but much more must be done to prevent corporations from putting profits over people’s lives in the industry.”
At least 59,000 workers at Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods, JBS, Cargill and National Beef — companies that control most of the U.S. meat market — fell ill with the coronavirus in the pandemic’s first year, the subcommittee previously found. At least 269 industry workers died between March 1, 2020, and Feb. 1, 2021.
The actual number of sicknesses and death, which should include people who likely caught Covid from those workers, is likely at least 10 times higher.
I’ve said it before, and I will say it again. Without a credible threat of jail time for corporate executives who behave criminally, all corporate executives will be criminals.