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Pandemic safety measures fought by meatpacking industry, analysis shows

Beef Side Hanging Inspector Examining itThe meatpacking industry resisted the few attempts by the Trump administration to stop the spread of coronavirus in meatpacking plants last spring, according to documents obtained by Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in response to a FOIA request.

“It is heartbreaking to see the callousness of the meatpacking industry, pushing back against basic safety measures that could have saved hundreds of lives and helped contain the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Adam Pulver, attorney for the Public Citizen Litigation Group.

While it was known that meatpacking companies didn’t take adequate measures to protect their workers and the communities they lived in from the threat of covid-19, the documents show that the industry actively pushed back against the few steps the Trump administration took to try to ensure the safety of meatpacking workers and federal inspectors, Pulver said.

While previous documents obtained by Public Citizen showed how the meatpacking industry intensely, but unsuccessfully, lobbied the White House and the USDA for immunity from liability for their actions and inactions, the new documents show a damning picture of an industry that criticized common-sense reporting and public health measures designed to stop the spread of the deadly virus, he said.

The documents show:

  • In April 2020, officials in the North American Meat Institute protested USDA’s decision notto send Food Safety and Inspection Service or FSIS Inspectors who were exposed to covid-19 into other plants. On April 15, 2020, one NAMI official stated, “We can’t start sidelining individuals at FSIS or in the industry because they may have been exposed. We all may have been exposed at this point.”
  • Later in April 2020, officials at the National Chicken Council complained to USDA that FSIS was asking too many questions about covid-19 testing at poultry processing facilities, stating the “questions seem to be unnecessary.”
  • In May 2020, officials at Tyson complained to USDA that the company had to “spend significant resources … each day when reporting positive team members.”
  • In late-March 2020, the Food and Beverage Issue Alliance developed guidance for industry members stating that, unless state or local governments required it, “physical (social) distancing should be a tool but not a requirement.”
  • Industry officials reported FSIS employees who warned their friends and families about plants with cases of covid-19, specifically forwarding a personal Facebook post and asking USDA to take disciplinary action against the inspectors.

As of February 2021, there have been at least 45,000 reported positive cases of covid-19 linked to meat and poultry processing facilities in the United States and at least 240 reported worker deaths.

Documents previously obtained by Public Citizen and released in February showed that the Trump administration didn’t involve OSHA in its response until nearly a month after outbreaks began and, even then, reluctantly.

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