Former Agriculture secretary Sonny Perdue and staff at USDA and the Vice President’s office sought to influence how states responded to early outbreaks of Covid-19 in meatpacking plants last spring, a trove of documents reveals.
The documents consist of hundreds of pages of email records obtained via public records request by the law firm Public Citizen and released to FERN. They show top advisers, chiefs of staff, and officials like Perdue discussing how to respond to the spiking number of meatpacking plant workers who had contracted the virus last March and April.
In several cases, officials wanted or attempted to intervene in state governments’ efforts to temporarily shut down meatpacking plants to control the spread of the virus.
In early April, staff at the vice president’s office were concerned about Colorado Gov. Jared Polis’s plan to shut down the JBS plant in Greeley, Colorado, after about 30 workers there had contracted Covid-19.
The closure of the plant would be “[n]ot only a big concern for the single plant (top 5 slaughter plants in U.S.), but USDA very concerned about larger implications across industry if this sets a precedent,” wrote Jon Hickey, a domestic policy adviser to former vice president Mike Pence, to other staff in his office as well as USDA’s chief of staff, Joby Young, and a national security adviser, Olivia Troye, on April 9.
Gov. Polis did order the plant to close for two weeks on April 10 to test its workers, though it reopened without completing the testing.
Days later, Perdue reached out directly to South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem to express concern after she successfully urged the Smithfield Foods processing plant in Sioux Falls to close for two weeks on April 12. At the time, nearly 450 workers at the plant had contracted Covid-19.
“We need to talk about the unintended consequences regarding the closing of the Sioux Falls pork processing plant,” he wrote on April 13. “I would classify as urgent.”
Previous reporting has revealed that meatpacking companies sought assistance last spring from USDA in pushing back against public health orders from local officials.
But these documents are the first evidence of the steps the agency took last spring to intervene in states’ responses to the growing crisis of meatpacking worker illness and absenteeism.
FERN has counted more than 58,000 cases and 297 deaths among meatpacking plant workers, the majority of which occurred in the early months of the pandemic.
USDA’s efforts reached as high as the top leadership at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). On April 15, Perdue emailed former CDC director Robert Redfield to thank the agency for offering to do outreach to local health departments “to ensure they are aware of the latest CDC guidance for essential critical workers.” He expressed concern that “[h]ealth officials in areas where there are protein plan closures are not uniformly aware of the latest CDC guidance.”
“I do think it would help to get in front of some of the health anxiety out there, where it pertains to meat processing,” Perdue wrote. “We need our local public health authorities to do everything they can to keep the food supply chain operational, and at the same time ensuring the health and safety of employees.”
Perdue’s communication with Redfield is “a level [of intervention] we hadn’t seen before,” says Adam Pulver, an attorney with Public Citizen. “It is troubling to think that CDC would be making decisions based on the pork industry’s goals of staying open, not public health.”
USDA did not respond immediately to a request for comment. Neither did the CDC.
The documents also provide a look into how the agency was considering taking action under the Defense Production Act after former president Trump signed an executive order on April 28 granting USDA the authority to use the DPA to maintain food production.
Two days after the executive order was signed, Steve Censky, the former USDA deputy secretary, wrote to Mindy Brashears, the agency’s former undersecretary for food safety, and other USDA staff to solicit more information about plant closures “so that we can make a determination of whether we need to issue an order under the DPA to the plant and inform state and local officials of such action.”
“While we should continue to try to work cooperatively with the plants and state/local officials to achieve resolution without the need for us to issue an order, the indefinite and 2-week closures don’t meet that test and are unacceptable,” wrote Censky.
Over the course of last spring, about three dozen meat slaughter and processing plants shuttered or reduced production in an attempt to control the spread of Covid-19 among its workers, according to a database kept by the trade publication Meat + Poultry.
Internal talking points prepared for Perdue on April 29 in preparation for the executive order show that the agency was prepared to issue a DPA order keeping plants open.
Among a series of steps to be taken under the executive order was “direct meat and poultry processing plants to immediately reopen and resume operations.” Yet the agency never took this action.
The documents also show USDA acting at the behest of the meatpacking company JBS to intervene in Nebraska’s handling of worker benefits during an early outbreak at the company’s Grand Island facility.
The company reached out to USDA’s Marketing and Regulatory Programs office “expressing concerns that workers at their processing facility in Grand Island NE may choose to take unemployment instead of reporting to work,” wrote Dudley Hoskins, a former senior adviser at MRP, to other USDA staff on April 2.
Hoskins wrote that Greg Ibach, the former MRP undersecretary, called Nebraska governor Pete Ricketts’ office “to make them aware” of the situation. Later that day, Ricketts held a press conference in which he stated that workers who quit their jobs would not be eligible for unemployment benefits.
“Hopefully this is a ‘crisis averted’ situation,” wrote Hoskins, “but flagging for collective awareness and future conversations, if needed.”