Opinion — Smithfield’s media attack shifts attention from its own lack of disclosure

In a full-page ad in the Sunday edition of the New York Times, Smithfield Foods, the nation’s largest pork company, alleged that the media and other “critics” have targeted the company with “accusations fueled by misinformation and disinformation” about its response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In doing so, Smithfield is ignoring its own role in limiting public discourse about the pandemic and eluding its efforts to promote a friendly regulatory environment.

Smithfield’s ad, which was also published in other papers including the Washington Post and Omaha World-Herald, begins with a quote from Teddy Roosevelt: “It is not the critic who counts … the credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.” The ad argues that Smithfield and its meatpacking workers are “in the arena,” producing the nation’s food, while “critics,” including the media, “sit on the sidelines … creating false narratives and spreading misinformation” with “stories that create controversy and cast blame” to “[garner] viewers or clicks.”

Yet, Smithfield repeatedly has declined to release information about the spread of Covid-19 at its facilities — reporting that would expand the public’s knowledge of the conditions in the meatpacking industry and the risks its workers face in producing the nation’s food.

I have been tracking cases of Covid-19 among food system workers, including meatpacking workers, since mid-April. In that time, more than 38,000 meatpacking workers have contracted the virus, and over 170 have died. More than 2,000 documented cases have occurred at Smithfield plants, including the third-largest meatpacking outbreak in the country: 853 cases at the company’s plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Two workers died in that outbreak, in addition to one at a Smithfield plant in Crete, Nebraska, and three more at Smithfield’s plant in St. Charles, Illinois.

Due to the inconsistent nature of testing and reporting at meatpacking facilities, all of the figures above are potentially undercounts; industry-wide figures almost certainly are higher because few states and no companies are regularly releasing data on worker illness. Why is so little is known about infection rates among meatpacking workers? In part, because the meat industry has pressured officials and regulators to curtail reporting of cases and deaths at meatpacking plants.

Smithfield has joined in these efforts. In March, Smithfield CEO Kenneth Sullivan sent a letter to Nebraska governor Pete Ricketts imploring him to characterize food sector workers as essential and arguing that “social distancing is a nicety that makes sense only for people with laptops.” In May, Ricketts halted the release of Covid-19 case counts by meatpacking facilities, a move criticized by workers and the United Food and Commercial Workers union. The state is now only releasing sporadic cumulative case totals for the sector.

In July, Smithfield also asked a federal judge to dismiss an Occupational Safety and Health Administration subpoena of the South Dakota Department of Health for documentation related to the company’s outbreak in Sioux Falls. The company and agency last week reached an agreement on the matter, the terms of which have not been disclosed.

The pork packer has also declined on several occasions to answer specific questions about its testing practices and about worker illnesses, or it has only provided generic responses to queries for FERN stories.

Reporters are likely not the only subject of Smithfield’s ad. The company has been sued by workers at its Milan, Missouri, plant, who alleged that the conditions at the plant made them vulnerable to the spread of Covid-19. Although that suit was dismissed, the company recently made significant donations to the Republican Attorneys General Association, which is lobbying Congress to pass a liability shield that would protect employers from similar Covid-19 lawsuits.

The company has also declined to share data about Covid-19 cases and deaths at its facilities when requested by Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker as part of an inquiry into the meat industry’s response to the pandemic. Sullivan, the Smithfield CEO, wrote in a letter to the senators only that “[e]mployees should never be reduced to numbers,” and that “[t]he number of our employees lost to this global pandemic is measured in the low hundredths of one percent of our total workforce.”

In its ad, Smithfield correctly asserts that the nation “must produce food, and someone has to do it.” As the pandemic continues and more meatpacking workers fall ill, the role of the media is not to presume that the essential nature of food production makes it less worthy of investigation. Rather, the media’s role is to report on those sectors suffering disproportionate rates of illness and to rigorously hold companies like Smithfield accountable for the conditions faced by the necessary, and vulnerable, food workers who feed us all.