New Report Details How Iowa Meatpackers Risked Workers’ Safety During COVID

Cargill, JBS, National Beef, Smithfield Foods, and Tyson, all of which operate meatpacking plants in Iowa, are accused of conspiring with the Trump Administration to shield themselves from legal liability after they forced workers back on the line during the COVID pandemic, despite being “aware of the high risks,” according to a damning new report from a House subcommittee.

The report, from the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, says the companies “engaged in a concerted effort with Trump Administration political officials to insulate themselves from coronavirus-related oversight, to force workers to continue working in dangerous conditions, and to shield themselves from legal liability for any resulting worker illness or death.”

Across the country, more than 59,000 workers at those five companies’ plants were infected with coronavirus, and at least 269 died from it, “significantly higher than previously estimated,” according to the report.

The report says company executives were made aware of their workers’ increased risks but took little to no precautions, falsely claimed there would be a meat shortage in the US in order to justify staying open, and enlisted the US Department of Agriculture’s help blocking safety orders from local health departments and other measures to force workers to stay on the job, fearing they would otherwise lose productivity.

In one instance involving Iowa plants, a human resources (HR) director at JBS received a letter from the Mexican Consulate of Omaha after the deaths of two Mexican nationals, one at a Marshalltown plant. The letter was “expressing concern on behalf of workers (at) Iowa meatpacking facilities,” particularly noting they continued to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with no mask mandate.

The report notes the JBS HR director told a state government representative it “will not press this request” and it “personally (did) not want to be in contact” with the consulate on the matter.

Later, worried they would be unsuccessful in shielding themselves from legal liability from the fallout of mass worker infections at the state and local levels, Tyson and Smithfield successfully pressured President Donald Trump to issue an executive order that would supposedly insulate the companies from lawsuits as well as local oversight or health mandates.

“Tyson’s legal department drafted the proposed order and the companies, through their industry representative, shared it with allied USDA officials who had previously helped them lobby or interfere with decision-making by other arms of federal and state government,” the subcommittee wrote.

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In response to the report, Tyson said its “top priority” was “the health and safety” of its workers.

“Over the past two years, our company has been contacted by, received direction from, and collaborated with many different federal, state, and local officials – including both the Trump and Biden Administrations – as we’ve navigated the challenges of the pandemic,” the company said in a statement.

Tyson, JBS, Cargill, and National Beef together account for 85% of purchasing and processing of beef in the US, while Tyson, JBS, Smithfield, and Hormel Foods account for 70% of the pork market, according to the report.

They also accounted for higher likelihood of COVID-19’s spread: A USDA analysis estimated that, by the end of May 2020, counties with high proportions of meatpacking workers accounted for about half of the top 25 and eight of the top ten rural counties with the highest infection rates, according to the report.

By mid-July 2020, meatpacking plants had driven so much community spread that they were associated with 236,000 to 310,000 coronavirus cases—amounting to 6 to 8% of all U.S. coronavirus cases—and 4,300 to 5,200 coronavirus deaths, according to the report.

But none of that affected profits, which rose during the pandemic: Tyson reported $3 billion in income in 2021, up from $2 billion in 2020, while JBS made $4.2 billion in 2021, up from $937 million the year before, the report noted.


By Amie Rivers

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