In late April, President Donald Trump signed an executive order calling meat-processing plants “critical infrastructure,” allowing them to stay open even with nearly 7,000 meatpacking workers having been affected by the coronavirus. Emails recently obtained by American Oversight and Public Citizen reveal that just a week before this order, the meat industry had provided the Trump administration with a draft order bearing strong resemblance to the one ultimately signed by the president.
An additional set of documents obtained by American Oversight shows an executive emailing the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the dangers to the meat industry — at the same time those companies were exporting a record amount of pork to China.
On Tuesday, USA Today reported on the first set of emails, which were first written about by ProPublica and show how meat industry executives exerted major pressure on federal decision-making. The emails also show that one of the largest meatpacking companies, Smithfield Foods, repeatedly contacted Department of Agriculture officials requesting that it be able to reopen plants that had been shut down because of rising numbers of coronavirus cases and local health department orders.
On April 21, the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) shared with USDA officials a draft executive order that contained the following sentence: “I hereby order that critical infrastructure food companies continue their operations to the fullest extent possible both during and after the COVID-19 crisis subsides so that they can continue to process, produce, and deliver food to the Nation.”
Trump’s executive order, signed on April 28, echoes much of the language in NAMI’s draft and gave USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue the authority to keep the meatpacking plants open.
Earlier that month, NAMI also asked that Perdue work to get Trump or Vice President Mike Pence to discourage workers who were afraid to return to the job from staying at home. As ProPublica pointed out, the Labor Department later issued guidance clarifying that workers who quit out of fear of contracting the virus would not receive unemployment benefits.
American Oversight has obtained additional communications that show Smithfield CEO Ken Sullivan had also contacted CDC Director Robert Redfield. The emails began as a follow-up to a phone call between Redfield and Sullivan on April 27. Redfield thanked Sullivan directly, writing, “We look forward to working with you and your team, you can reach me directly via this email.”
Sullivan replied, “Our industry needs help; I’m heartened to hear your intention to apply practicality as we attempt to keep our food chain intact.”
While Sullivan alluded to a suffering industry in need of government assistance, New York Times investigations show that during this same month Smithfield and other companies exported tens of thousands of tons of port to China, in its highest monthly exports to that market in three years. This suggests that the food chain was nowhere near as vulnerable as Sullivan made it out to be not only in these communications but also in Smithfield press releases from the same month.
The next day, the president signed the executive order allowing meat plants to remain open. Nearly five months later, more than 42,000 meatpacking workers have tested positive for Covid-19 and at least 200 have died.
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