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We Probably Didn't Have a Meat Shortage After All

House panel report: Tyson, other meat-processing companies made 'baseless' claims of scarcity
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted May 13, 2022 2:50 PM CDT
We Probably Didn't Have a Meat Shortage After All
Photo of pork chops at a meat processing plant.   (Getty Images/RGtimeline)

Workers at meat-processing plants were forced to clock in to work during the early days of the pandemic, thanks to an executive order out of the Trump administration deeming them essential workers amid what was said to be a beef and pork shortage. Except now it seems that last part wasn't exactly true, according to a new report out from the House panel studying how the US responded to COVID, per the Washington Post. What the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis concluded instead in its 61-page release was that the meat industry's biggest players, with Tyson Foods in the driver's seat, crafted a draft filled with "baseless" claims on meat shortages, then sent it along to the White House, which in turn issued an executive order that forced meat-processing factories nationwide to remain open for business.

"Meatpacking companies knew the risk posed by the coronavirus to their workers and knew it wasn't a risk that the country needed them to take," the panel's report says, adding that, despite this knowledge, the companies pushed "aggressively" to keep workers on the clock in "unsafe conditions," and to shield themselves from legal action if anyone got sick or died. Among the misleading info promoted by Tyson, Smithfield Foods, Cargill, JBS, and National Beef was that shuttering the plants "would lead to "an imminent meat shortage," according to the report, which was culled from a review of 150,000-plus documents, as well as interviews with union reps, officials from OSHA and the Department of Agriculture, and health authorities. John H. Tyson, chairman of Tyson's board, even took out a full-page ad in major newspapers in April 2020, proclaiming, "The food supply chain is breaking."

Before Trump signed that executive order around the same time, top dogs from Tyson and Smithfield were said to have been in contact with members of the White House, including chief of staff Mark Meadows and VP Mike Pence's own chief of staff, Marc Short, per the report. In January, a Reuters analysis found the vast majority—nearly 90%—of processing plants owned by the nation's five biggest meat companies were slammed with COVID cases in 2020 and the beginning of 2021. Research from last year out of UC Davis found nearly 335,000 COVID cases in the US can be tied to the meatpacking plants, with an $11 billion price tag. A Tyson rep tells the Post the company has worked with officials within both the Trump and Biden administrations to wrangle with the pandemic, while a Smithfield executive notes that his company has sunk more than $900 million into worker safety initiatives. (More meat stories.)

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