During the early months of the pandemic, meat-processing plants frequently became home to devastating outbreaks of Covid-19 among workers. But as seen in records previously reported on by American Oversight and USA Today, the meat industry used its high level of influence within the Trump administration not only to push for plants to quickly reopen, but also to push for faster chicken-eviscerator line speeds. Now, American Oversight has obtained new records that provide further evidence of this latter lobbying effort.
Last year, USA Today reported on documents obtained by American Oversight and Public Citizen that included communications from April 2020 between the National Chicken Council (NCC) and officials at the Department of Agriculture. Those records showed that as coronavirus case numbers were surging, poultry industry representatives asked USDA to allow faster line speeds, which would crowd workers closer together and up the risk of injury. In 2019, the NCC had successfully lobbied for increasing line speeds in some plants, but the onset of the pandemic appears to have offered them an opportunity to renew efforts to extend waivers to more facilities.
The newly uncovered communications include an email from April 6, 2020, in which John Watson, a partner at consulting firm Impact Public Affairs, asked USDA Chief of Staff Joby Young, “Are you and the Secretary doing industry calls to touch bases and, if so, would you consider doing one with some of the leaders/ board members of NCC?”
Young replied, “Happy to set up a call with the right folks.” Watson replied with a list of issues to discuss, with the first being “consideration for temporary line-speed waiver that would allow for overall production averages to be sustained.”
The documents suggest a call occurred on April 9. That day, Ashley Peterson, the senior vice president of the National Chicken Council, wrote to Kristi Boswell, a senior adviser to the agriculture secretary, “Thank you and your team again for your time this afternoon.” She included an “outline of the topics we discussed on the phone,” including “$150 million special purchase request,” “grower support,” and “growing shortage of company employees.”
On April 13, Peterson wrote: “Thank you again for your time last week to discuss several pertinent industry issues. One of the issues that we discussed was regarding the current line speed limits and how flexibility in those limits would help us ensure we can maintain production during these uncertain times.” Peterson attached a letter from NCC President Mike Brown to Mindy Brashears, the deputy undersecretary for food safety at USDA, which made the case for line speed waivers. Lillie Brady, USDA’s director of external affairs, replied, “We will make sure the right folks are aware.”
That same month, USDA granted waivers allowing 15 plants to operate at faster line speeds, more waivers than the agency had ever before approved in a single month. A Washington Post analysis earlier this year found that poultry plants with such waivers were at least 10 times more likely to have coronavirus cases among workers than plants without waivers.
At least eight of the plants that were granted line speed waivers in April 2020 had coronavirus outbreaks by September, and as of last fall, outbreaks had been reported in 40 percent of all plants that received waivers during the Trump administration, according to the Food and Environment Reporting Network. In December 2020, a study estimated that 6 percent to 8 percent of all Covid-19 cases in the U.S. were linked to poultry and meatpacking plants.
The poultry industry had pushed for line waivers as early as 2017, when the NCC asked USDA to allow plants participating in a specific inspection system to operate “at any line speed” the plants could safely handle.
The documents also contain communications from 2018, including a reference to then-Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue meeting with Future Farmers of America students, an email in which the president of the Georgia Poultry Federation clarified comments he had made in the media, and an invitation for Perdue to speak at the NCC.
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