The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

How Meatpacking Industry Executives Decided Government Policies on Covid-19

May 23, 2022

New information from a Congressional investigation shows how the meatpacking industry exerted pressure on the Trump administration and government agencies and succeeded in keeping its plants open during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic in the U.S.

At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic there were many cases and deaths linked to the meatpacking industry. The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis is conducting an investigation into these outbreaks and says that 59,000 workers at meatpacking plants caught the virus by February of 2021 and 269 of them died. Other researchers estimate that by July 2020 about 6% to 8% of all cases in the U.S. were tied to packing plant outbreaks, and by October 2020 community spread from the plants produced 334,000 cases and 18,000 deaths.

When state and local governments began imposing lockdowns, officials in the meatpacking industry sprang into action to make sure their plants could continue to operate. Knowing they had friends in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in March 2020, they called for the USDA to play a role in the White House Coronavirus Task Force in order that meatpacking workers would be considered “critical infrastructure” workers and be exempt from any stay-at-home orders issued by state governors.

Within weeks, Trump’s agriculture secretary arranged a call between several meatpacking industry CEOs and Vice President Mike Pence. Later that day in a White House press conference, Pence told meatpacking workers to "show up and do your job." The companies, however, ignored government warnings to prepare for a possible pandemic by purchasing masks, and by coming up with plans to space workers apart, who are typically closely packed together on meat processing assembly lines.

When Smithfield Foods’ plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, was shut down, and the Centers for Disease Control put out a draft of recommendations to reduce Covid-19 at the plant, emails released by the House subcommittee show the company’s CEO Kevin Sullivan sent a copy back to the CDC with portions marked “problematic.” The CDC altered its subsequent recommendations to include phrases like "if feasible" and "whenever possible."

Soon after, executives at both Smithfield and Tyson put out warnings the country was in danger of running out of meat. Data released by the House subcommittee show that the very same month, the meatpacking industry exported a record amount of meat to China. The North American Meat Institute put out a statement letting customers overseas know there was plenty of meat for export.

That didn’t stop Tyson and Smithfield executives from getting together to call on then-President Trump to use his powers under the Defense Production Act to keep the meatpacking plants open. The House subcommittee’s records detail extensive communications between industry officials, the USDA, and the White House. Trump took part in a call with industry executives early on the very day he issued the executive order that they were hoping for. Emails released by the House subcommittee show Trump essentially used a proposed draft from Tyson’s legal department as his executive order. It did not require the meat processing plants to remain open but exempted them from legal liability if they did.

This information clearly shows how corporate pressure determined government policies that could not help but speed up the spread of the Covid-19 virus. Now that Trump is gone, Congress is making some effort to bring these machinations to light.

The question remains, however, whether this represents anything more than the Democrats using it as political capital for the upcoming elections. Now that Biden is in office and the Democrats control both houses of Congress, what policies have they enacted to require the corporations to protect the lives of workers? The Democrats may write their orders using a different language from Trump, but in the end, they carry out policies that serve the same corporate interests.