Congressional Report: Meatpackers Influenced USDA Oversight of COVID Response

May 12, 2022, 5:04 p.m. ·

beef carcasses hanging in a plant.
Beef carcasses hanging in a JBS packing plant. (Photo courtesy JBS)

A congressional subcommittee claims in a new report meatpacking plants worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to force employees to stay on the job while aware of unsafe working conditions at the height of the COVID pandemic.

The investigation determined meatpackers refused to take adequate coronavirus precautions, resulting in mass illness and death.

The House Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis released a report claiming COVID safety guidelines for meatpacking plants released by the USDA had been heavily influenced by the companies being regulated.

Two protestors hold up handwritten signs in a parking lot.
Demonstrators outside Smithfield Foods plant in Crete in 2020. (Archive photo)

The objective, according to the report’s findings, were designed to insulate the food processing industry from a loss of productivity and profits. Owners of Nebraska’s major packing plants, Tyson, JBS and Smithfield, are all cited in the report.

During the pandemic, the industry claimed workers needed to stay on the job to avoid shortages of beef, pork, and poultry. Congressional investigators found those fears were baseless. In April 2020, Governor Pete Ricketts used predictions of “civil unrest” resulting from meat shortages as a justification to keep Nebraska plants open.

Critics of the industry said the report confirmed suspicions they harbored about the meatpackers' collusion with the Trump administration.

“These companies have more than animal blood on their hands; they are also responsible for the loss of human lives,” wrote Dulce Castañeda, co-founder of Children of Smithfield in an email. The group advocates for the employees at the pork plant in Crete.

Rose Godinez, legal and policy counsel for the ACLU of Nebraska, wrote “the close coordination and the willful disregard for workers’ safety described in this report should concern us all.” In her email statement Godinez added, “companies put profits over workers’ lives as the pandemic hit their workers harder than any other industry in Nebraska and agency officials let it happen.”

Nationally, it’s believed more than 400 meatpacking plant workers died. At least 86,000 workers were infected, according to Investigate Midwest.

Cargill, the only company to respond to our request for comment before our deadline, did not address allegations in the report directly, but repeated earlier statements concerning its efforts to “maintain safe and consistent operations.”

The statement continued: “The well-being of our plant employees is integral to our business and to the continuity of the food supply chain. We operate in a manner that meets or exceeds the federal government’s health and safety standards.”