Meat Industry Campaign Cash Flows to Officials Seeking to Quash Covid-19 Lawsuits
Lee Fang, The Intercept
July 24 2020
Factory farming interests, facing potential legal risks for allegedly failing to protect workers from coronavirus-related risks, are among the many business interests now backing efforts to obtain special immunity from legal liability.
In April, as meat supply chains came under enormous pressure to continue producing food during the pandemic, factory farms became some of the first hot spots for the rampant spread of the coronavirus. Nearly 100 workers at a variety of meat-processing plants across the country have died of Covid-19 and several thousand have been infected across the industry, a crisis that has spurred lawsuits alleging that the meat industry has failed to protect workers.
The legal threat could be undone by new liability waiver laws, a legislative priority for Republicans in both the House and Senate that has received political support from the industry and influential think tanks.
Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork processor, and Mountaire Farms, a major poultry producer, have come under fire in recent months for reportedly pressuring employees to crowd into plants with minimal safety precautions.
Smithfield Foods has cut campaign checks to the Republican attorneys general seeking civil liability protections for businesses that remained open during the pandemic, and has dispatched company lobbyists to press lawmakers on the issue.
Smithfield Foods, which donates small amounts to dozens of lawmakers on a regular basis, made its first significant donation to the Republican Attorneys General Association in over six years two months ago. The company made a $25,000 donation to RAGA just three days before members of the association sent a letter to Congress demanding broad business immunity from civil claims holding companies responsible for coronavirus infections due to working conditions. Later that month, after the letter was sent, Smithfield Foods followed up with another $25,000 contribution to RAGA.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to create a surge in civil litigation targeting well-intentioned businesses for taking pandemic mitigation measures,” the letter, led by Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, warned. The letter noted that 23 states have signed liability limits over the coronavirus, and urged Congress to swiftly enact a federal waiver.
Ron Cameron, the billionaire chair of Mountaire Farms, has similarly showered officials backing a broad push for legal immunity for coronavirus-related claims with campaign donations.
The American Farm Bureau Federation, which represents a range of animal agriculture interests, has also pushed Congress to include liability waivers in the next round of legislative relief for the current crisis.
Mountaire Farms and Smithfield Foods did not respond to a request for comment.
The centralized nature of the factory farm industry, with massive plants employing workers often huddled shoulder to shoulder, deboning chickens, or packaging beef, along with meager paid sick leave and the declining rates of federal safety inspectors, made the industry an early focal point of the crisis.
Several major meat companies coerced sick employees to continue working with promises of bonuses, and in many plants workers claimed that they faced hostility when requesting hygiene equipment such as face masks.
In one Texas plant owned by JBS, a Brazil-based meat conglomerate, workers were enticed to continue working through the pandemic with the promise of a free Angus rib-eye, which retails at nearly half a day’s wages. The industry’s immigrant-heavy workforce cited fear of retribution for speaking out on the dangerous conditions.
In April, President Donald Trump issued an executive order compelling meatpacking plants to stay open, exacerbating the rapid spread of the virus. Earlier that month, one Smithfield Foods plant in South Dakota briefly gained international attention as the nation’s largest coronavirus outbreak.
Smithfield Foods has faced at least one federal lawsuit over its handling of the crisis. The Rural Community Workers Alliance, a group that organizes meatpacking workers in rural Missouri, claimed that the company violated Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines at its Milan, Missouri plant. Employees at the plant, the complaint charged, were crowded into close proximity with insufficient safety equipment. The lawsuit, however, was dismissed, partially on jurisdictional grounds.
“We are pleased with the decision of the United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri to dismiss the complaint made against our company,” the company said in a statement. “From the start, we stated that this lawsuit was frivolous, full of specious allegations that were without factual or legal merit and that the assertions were based on speculation, hearsay, anonymous declarations and outdated information.”
In South Dakota, Smithfield Foods asked a federal judge to block federal regulators from obtaining Covid-19 outbreak data in the state. “Smithfield’s employees have legitimate privacy interests in this information, and Smithfield and DOH [South Dakota Department of Health] are legally obligated to protect it,” the company’s attorneys claimed.
Mountaire Farms has also faced claims that the company...
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