Probably the worst effects of Donald Trump’s presidency was that there was so much widespread incompetence, corruption, and downright criminality that it’s nearly impossible to keep track of it all. Trump and his Team of Evils got away with stuff that would have sunk prior administrations every damn day. Steve Bannon’s approach to misinformation — “flood the zone with shit” — applied equally to misbehavior in office. There was far more than any of the official watchdogs in government, or the unofficial ones in the media, could keep track of. So much criminality, so little time, and so little brain space for all of it.
As a prime example, take this report released yesterday by the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, which found that the meatpacking industry was thick as thieves with Trump’s Department of Agriculture, where career staff were sidelined so that political appointees could do everything possible to keep meat plants running during the pandemic, worker safety be damned. At least 269 workers died during the pandemic, and more than 59,000 became infected, all while the industry resisted any attempt to protect workers from spreading infection.
Worse, the report presents evidence that the industry pushed “flimsy if not false” claims of an impending meat shortage to justify keeping plants running near capacity, no matter what, although internal industry documents showed management knew there was no such shortage. Ultimately, the report says, the industry enlisted the USDA and the White House in an effort to avoid oversight from state and local health authorities. Donald Trump’s April 2020 executive order demanded that meat plants stay open, to keep meating America with all the meat the meat industry could meat at us.
As Wonkette’s Evan Hurst noted at the time, Trump’s HEREBY DECLARE was a hell of a departure from how Trump handled other aspects of the pandemic:
Trump has been reluctant to use actual powers he has, like invoking the Defense Production Act to make sure doctors have PPE and hospitals have ventilators, but he sure did invoke it to make sure America’s delicious meats are able to make their full journey from the plant all the way into his Big Macs which go in his mouth. How can the White House chef burn him steaks and slather them with ketchup if the meat plants are closed? Clearly an untenable situation.
Well gosh, what a coincidence Donald Trump took such meaty action to protect the meat industry, which was worried about being sued by workers forced to process animal carcasses in close quarters, with little protective equipment. The report details that the executive order was actually proposed and drafted by lawyers at Tyson Foods, with input from other companies. (ProPublica broke that story in the fall of 2020, although we missed it at the time.) Tyson and industry lobbyists then shared the draft “with allied USDA officials who had previously helped them lobby or interfere with decision-making by other arms of federal and state government.”
In the days leading up to President Trump’s issuance of the Executive Order, meatpacking industry representatives and companies—Smithfield and Tyson in particular—engaged in constant communications with Trump appointees at USDA, the National Economic Council, and the White House. […] The eventual order adopted the themes and statutory directive laid out in Tyson’s draft, invoking the Defense Production Act to ensure meatpacking plants “continue operations.”
That was just how the Trump administration worked: Why bother regulating industries during a deadly pandemic when you can just let the industry tell you what it would like to do?
Not that the executive order was a complete freebie; the report also notes that the day after President Meat Sweats ordered more meat, the White House demanded tribute, requesting in an email to various meat trade groups that the companies “issue positive statements and social media about the President’s action on behalf of the industry, about the Order itself and about how it will help ensure the food supply chain remains strong.”
A flack at the “North American Meat Institute” obligingly sent back not only a press release, but a set of talking points the White House might use to thank the industry for thanking Trump.
The report concludes that the 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. They nonetheless lobbied aggressively—successfully enlisting USDA as a close collaborator in their efforts—to keep workers on the job in unsafe conditions, to ensure state and local health authorities were powerless to mandate otherwise, and to be protected against legal liability for the harms that would result.
As the Washington Post (free link) reports, the committee combed through a wealth of information, including
a review of 151,000 pages of documents, more than a dozen survey calls with industry union representatives, former Agriculture Department and Occupational Safety and Health Administration officials, and state and local health authorities. The subcommittee also held a staff briefing with OSHA and the USDA.
Some of the details are simply astonishing, like the quote from a meat industry lobbyist that graces the cover of the report, “Now to get rid of those pesky health departments!” Yes, someone said that in a real email, not in an episode of Scooby Doo.
That quote’s from page three, in which the committee explained that well into the pandemic, the industry was still refusing to take science-based measures to keep workers from getting infected on the job.
For example, as late as May 22, 2020—well after the efficacy and necessity of coronavirus precautions such as testing, social distancing, and personal protective equipment were widely recognized—an executive at Koch Foods told a meatpacking industry lobbyist that temperature screening was “all we should be doing.” The lobbyist agreed, saying “Now to get rid of those pesky health departments!”
In a footnote, we find that’s from an email by one Ashley Peterson, who was and is the “Senior Vice President of Scientific and Regulatory Affairs” for the “National Chicken Council.” After all, a temperature check found one worker who was sick, the worker went home, and later tested positive, so clearly that was the only sick worker at that plant. (Also, no, temperature checks alone were never sufficient to safeguard against infections at work)
Dr. Peterson made another appearance later that summer, in a tweet from the National Chicken Council explaining that worker safety is job one, although oddly in the linked video she doesn’t say anything about getting rid of those meddling kids in health departments. Hey, maybe she was just joking and pretending to sound like a cartoon villain! We left a message for Dr. Peterson at the Chicken Lobby seeking comment, and will update when / if we hear back from her.
In another fun incident, we learn that Foster Farms enlisted help from a Trump USDA appointee, Undersecretary of Ag Mindy Brashears, to prevent a local health department from ordering protections for workers. The chicken company, it turns out, had hidden death counts of workers in reports to the county as “resolved cases.”
According to officials from this health department, during a call with Foster Farms and Brashears’ office, someone working for either Foster Farms or USDA callously referred to these death counts as “toe tag resolutions,” likely alluding to the toe tag that is often put on a corpse at the morgue.
Haha, it is to laugh.
Also too, the report notes that the meatpacking companies fairly regularly “lobbied the White House to make clear that—despite concerns by state and local health departments—meatpacking companies should not have to address coronavirus risks if it would impact productivity.” Because heavens, you wouldn’t want either a meat shortage or a loss in profitability, now would you? The lobbying was particularly intense in seeking protection from liability for workers getting sick, a matter of such importance to then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that he fought tooth and nail to have it included in federal stimulus bills, even after Trump lost the 2020 election. Poor sad Mitch, it never did get passed.
In conclusion, this report makes clear that the meat industry and the Trump administration didn’t give two good shits about worker safety, because there was a lot of money to be made. Besides, it wasn’t like anyone important was dying — just low-income workers, many of them Latino, and as a Smithfield pork plant spokesperson memorably said, “Living circumstances in certain cultures are different than they are with your traditional American family,” so probably the workers were getting sick at home and then tainting the company’s immaculate slaughterhouse with filthy non-American virus.
At least the workers’ health made for a fun betting pool among Tyson plant managers, allegedly.
See? We still can’t get our heads around all that shit. It’s infuriating, and nobody’s going to go to jail.
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