Industry Influence at the Department of Agriculture During Pandemic

As the coronavirus spread through crowded and already dangerous meatpacking plants, companies not only sought to avoid closures but also to reduce important safety regulations. American Oversight has been investigating the meat industry's influence at federal agencies, including the Department of Agriculture, during the Covid-19 pandemic.

As the coronavirus pandemic took hold in March 2020, several meat-processing plants quickly closed in response to outbreaks among workers. More Covid-19 cases emerged in the spring, the summer, and again in the winter of that year. But throughout those months, the Trump administration frequently conceded to demands from the meatpacking and food industry, taking actions that allowed plants to stay open. As of July 2021, more than 90,000 meat and food processing workers had tested positive for Covid-19.   

One of the administration’s early actions came in April 2020, when White House officials pushed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to water down important Covid-19 recommendations for a Smithfield meatpacking plant that was in the midst of a major outbreak.

The administration went further on April 28, when then-President Donald Trump signed an executive order labeling meat-processing plants “critical infrastructure,” which allowed plants to remain open during the pandemic. Documents obtained by American Oversight and Public Citizen showed that one week before, meat industry representatives had provided the administration with a very similar draft order. The documents also included emails from May in which a senior USDA official gave the go-ahead to reopen that same Smithfield plant just a few weeks after the outbreak. 

American Oversight and Public Citizen also obtained records from that month indicating that the National Chicken Council had asked the USDA to issue waivers to allow for an increase in the speed of dangerous chicken-eviscerator lines. Several plants received waivers, despite concerns that faster line speeds would lead to more accidents and exacerbate the spread of Covid-19

In addition, according to emails shared by Public Citizen, when it came to worker-safety measures, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration largely deferred to the USDA’s emphasis on keeping plants open and maintaining full capacity, with the agency facing significant criticism for its lax oversight

American Oversight is investigating the industry’s influence on the Trump administration’s pandemic response, and its role in pushing policies designed to protect profits instead of workers. We’ve asked USDA for top officials’ communications with industry representatives, and have sent requests to USDA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Department of Health and Human Services for records related to a Food Supply Chain Task Force that was convened in the spring of 2020.

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