Sioux Falls' Smithfield 'overplayed' meat shortage, helping mold COVID guidelines in U.S., report says

Jonathan Ellis
Sioux Falls Argus Leader

The Sioux Falls Smithfield Foods coronavirus outbreak that started in March 2020 proved to be a catalyst for industry talking points and collaboration with the Trump administration in how the pandemic played out in the nation’s meatpacking industry, a new report alleges.

Ultimately, Trump administration officials, in league with meatpacking officials, watered down safety measures for workers as the pandemic raged through the nation’s meat processing facilities, according to the report from the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis. The report from the committee, which is comprised of seven Democrats and five Republicans, was released Thursday.

“The select subcommittee’s investigation has now revealed that, despite their awareness of the risk to their employees and their awareness of the security of the nation’s meat supply, meatpacking companies went on to engage in an aggressive campaign to ensure their facilities remained at maximum capacity, notwithstanding the unsafe conditions,” the report says.

More:Smithfield settles with feds for COVID-19 safety citations, agrees on health plan

The report offers a glimpse into how the meat industry and government officials were struggling to deal with a cascading disaster, as coronavirus cases mushroomed in plant after plant around the country. Industry representatives worked closely with government officials to control messaging to the public and their workers while struggling to keep plants operational.

Smithfield CEO 'overplayed' risk to food supply

The report also accuses then Smithfield Foods CEO Ken Sullivan of overplaying the seriousness of the risk to the nation’s food supply when, after the Sioux Falls plant closed in April 2020, he issued a statement warning of protein shortages. Internal industry documents accused Sullivan of using scare tactics. And while Sullivan was warning of domestic supply shortages, the Chinese-owned Smithfield, the largest pork producer in the country, was still seeking to export pork to China.

“Indeed, numerous public reports indicated that meatpacking companies had abundant inventory during this time – inventory that they could have used to supply domestic grocery shelves,” the report says.

Jim Monroe, a Smithfield spokesman, said in a statement that the pandemic proved to be a "first-of-its-kind challenge." He said the company made every effort to share its perspective on the pandemic with government officials.

"The meat production system is a modern wonder, but it is not one that can be re-directed at the flip of a switch," Monroe said. "That is the challenge we faced as restaurants closed, consumption patterns changed and hogs backed-up on farms with nowhere to go. The concerns we expressed were very real and we are thankful that a food crisis was averted and that we are starting to return to normal."

More:A week before Trump's order protecting meat plants, industry sent draft language to feds

Mask confusion, and mixed messaging

While the report is critical of the industry for being slow to take mitigation measures to protect workers on dense working lines, such as masking and hygiene, it fails to address the government’s own mixed messaging on those issues. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a prominent if imprecise source of COVID advice for media outlets, had rejected the need for masks less than a month before serious outbreaks in meat plants.

Fauci had followed then-Surgeon General Jerome Adams, who chastised people on Twitter on Feb. 29, 2020, for buying masks. Several of the nation’s prominent politicians, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, had urged constituents to continue attending public events.

It wasn’t until April 2020 that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began to reverse earlier advice that masks were not necessary.

By then, the coronavirus outbreak at Smithfield’s Sioux Falls plant was in full bloom, becoming the latest hotspot in what would become hotspot after hotspot as the pandemic spread across the country. The Sioux Falls outbreak is featured prominently in the committee report.

Smithfield's lobbying 'watered down' South Dakota's, nation's COVID response

The committee report criticizes the CDC for watering down recommendations to Smithfield about how to handle the Sioux Falls outbreak. Smithfield officials were angered when they learned that Gov. Kristi Noem’s office received a copy of the CDC’s guidance before they did, prompting a flurry of angry emails between Smithfield and government officials. Smithfield’s influence had succeeded in altering the language in the guidance to make it seem more discretionary than mandatory.

Dr. Robert Redfield, the former head of the CDC, told the committee in an interview that CDC’s guidance was altered on the recommendations of Smithfield and Sonny Purdue, the secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture, one of the prime regulators of the meatpacking industry and a Trump appointee. Redfield said the guidance was changed based on what the company felt was feasible to keep processing plants open amid fears of food shortages.

Ultimately, the report blames Smithfield’s lobbying efforts with regard to the Sioux Falls outbreak for negatively effecting government guidance throughout the nation.

“Smithfield’s lethal role in weakening federal meatpacking worker protections was not limited to its own employees,” the report says. “The company’s lobbying efforts with respect to the Sioux Falls recommendations carried over into shaping CDC/OSHA guidance for all federally-inspected meatpacking plants.”

The report also alleges that meatpacking officials were successful in obtaining protections from state and local health regulations after a series of confrontations with local officials, including Noem.

Recently, Noem criticized Sullivan, calling him an "emotional man" with whom she fought with during the pandemic.

"Their CEO at the time is not my favorite person," she told the Argus Leader in a recent interview.

In April 2020, Noem and Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken asked Smithfield to close its plant for two weeks to address ballooning cases. Smithfield did close in order to implement worker safety measures and reopened under new executive orders from the Trump administration that exempted meatpackers from local health regulations.

Packing house closures in Sioux Falls and elsewhere ultimately forced producers to euthanize hundreds of thousands of animals. The report does not address the effect that closures had on producers.