By Leah Douglas
(Reuters) - Top U.S. meatpacking companies drafted the executive order issued by President Donald Trump in 2020 to keep meat plants running and convinced his administration to encourage workers to stay on the job at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a report released on Thursday by a U.S. House panel.
The report by the House of Representatives Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis details the meat industry’s influence on Trump's White House as it tried to keep production rolling even as employees fell ill.
More than 59,000 meatpacking workers at plants owned by the nation's top five meatpackers contracted COVID-19 in the first year of the pandemic and at least 269 died, according to the first report by the panel, released in October.
"The shameful conduct of corporate executives pursuing profit at any cost during a crisis and government officials eager to do their bidding regardless of resulting harm to the public must never be repeated," committee chair Representative James Clyburn said.
The North American Meat Institute, the leading meat industry trade group, said the report "distorts the truth" and "uses 20/20 hindsight and cherry picks data to support a narrative that is completely unrepresentative of the early days of an unprecedented national emergency."
The report - based on thousands of documents and interviews with workers, union officials and experts - found that in April 2020, meatpacking companies led by Tyson Foods and Smithfield Foods drafted an executive order invoking the Defense Production Act (DPA) to keep meat plants open.
The DPA, which was enacted in 1950, gives the president emergency powers to control the domestic economy.
The companies sent the draft to Department of Agriculture (USDA) officials and corresponded extensively with the White House, USDA, and other administration officials before the order https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/FR-2020-05-01/pdf/2020-09536.pdf was finalized and signed on April 28, the report found.
Industry executives argued at the time that domestic meat supply was threatened by worker absenteeism.
Those concerns were "baseless," the House report said. USDA data showed meatpackers had 622 million pounds of frozen pork in March 2020 and that top meatpackers' pork exports grew as much as 370% in the first year of the pandemic.
Jim Monroe, Smithfield vice president of corporate affairs, said the company is proud of its pandemic response.
"Did we make every effort to share with government officials our perspective on the pandemic and how it was impacting the food production system? Absolutely," he said.
Gary Mickelson, a Tyson spokesperson, said the company's top priority is worker health and safety and that it has collaborated with federal, state and local officials in its pandemic response in the interest of protecting workers.
In April 2020, meat industry executives also lobbied the USDA to encourage workers to report to plants as absenteeism rose, resulting in a public statement to that effect from former Vice President Mike Pence, the report found.
The industry worked closely with political appointee Mindy Brashears, the USDA under secretary of food safety, and corresponded with her via her personal email and cell phone, a potential violation of the Federal Records Act, the report found.
The former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Robert Redfield, also told the House committee that he added softening language, like "if feasible," to CDC guidance for managing COVID-19 spread in meat plants because he was "persuaded by industry concerns" about the potential impact of the guidance.
(Reporting by Leah Douglas; Editing by Leslie Adler and Mark Porter)