Congressional report confirms meat processors made baseless claims of impending food shortage to keep plants open as a pandemic spread

A report released this week by a US congressional subcommittee confirmed that meatpacking companies conspired with the Trump administration to keep processing plants open during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, falsely claiming there was an impending meat shortage.

Worker in a slaughterhouse processing meat (Wikipedia Commons)

The House Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis found that Tyson Foods drafted a statement that became the basis for an executive order by the Trump administration declaring meatpacking facilities “critical infrastructure” to force them to remain open in defiance of orders by public health officials. Meat processing plants were significant early vectors of transmission of the deadly coronavirus.

Tracking by Investigate Midwest found that through October 2021 at least 400 meat plant workers had died from COVID-19 and 86,000 had been infected. A study by researchers at Columbia University and University of Chicago found that between 236,000 and 310,000 coronavirus infections through July 21, 2020, in the US occurred near a meatpacking plant, comprising 6 to 8 percent of all infections at the time.

The House committee reported, “While meatpacking companies—Smithfield and Tyson in particular—asserted that reduced plant operations and worker absenteeism were making the food supply chain ‘vulnerable,’ 69 documents obtained by the Select Subcommittee suggest that this narrative lacked any basis in fact and show that others in the industry believed it was false.”

It reported that there were in fact “abundant supplies.” It noted, for example, “According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, meatpackers held 622 million pounds of frozen pork as of March 31, 2020—an amount well above levels predating the pandemic.” Pork exports to China during this period were surging, reaching a record high.

Trump’s executive order had nothing to do with protecting food supplies and everything to do with protecting meat company’s profits. The crowded and unsanitary conditions in meatpacking plants were ideal transmission grounds for COVID-19. This fact was recognized early in the pandemic by public health officials, who took measures to limit the operations of large meat processors in a number of midwestern communities that were witnessing an explosion of COVID-19 cases and deaths. The dangers were also apparent to food industry executives, but instead of protecting workers they sought to conceal and downplay the risks.

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