Senators Get a Meaty Education

A CEO instructs critics on food production and safety in a pandemic.


By The Editorial Board, The Wall Street Journal (WSJ)

July 28, 2020


Producing meat is tough going in a pandemic, especially when you’re getting slaughtered by politicians. Last month Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker denounced America’s four largest meat processors for allegedly putting profits over workers, and Smithfield Foods CEO Kenneth Sullivan’s unapologetic response deserves attention.


Meat-processing plants became virus hot spots this spring, and factory closures caused shortages of some meat products at grocery stores and led to the culling of hogs, chicken and cattle. But...


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Smithfield Pushes Back on Its Response to Outbreaks


Michael Corkery, The New York Times (NYT)

Jul 24, 2020


Smithfield Foods defends its pandemic response: ‘Think this has been easy?’


Smithfield Foods, one of the nation’s largest meat packing companies, has been under scrutiny for refusing to publicly disclose the number of positive coronavirus cases among its employees and for its decision to export large amounts of meat to China while publicly warning about a looming meat shortage in the United States. Now, the company is pushing back.


“Think this has been easy?” Kenneth Sullivan, Smithfield’s chief executive, wrote in a letter to two leading Democrats in the Senate, Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, who have asked the company for information about their response to coronavirus outbreaks in many of its plants. “It has not. I would gladly let you live in my shoes.”


In a letter to the senators, co-signed by thousands of Smithfield employees, Mr. Sullivan complained of “Monday morning quarterbacks everywhere” and “revisionist historians” who have held the company to unfair and impractical standards regarding masks and social distancing measures.


“Processing plants were no more designed to operate in a pandemic than hospitals were designed to produce pork,’’ Mr. Sullivan wrote. “In other words, for better or worse, our plants are what they are. Four walls, engineered design, efficient use of space, etc. Spread out? Okay. Where?”


Smithfield’s response to the senators’ requests for information is far more combative than those submitted by other meat packing executives at Tyson, JBS and Cargill.


Mr. Sullivan was the first meat packing executive to warn publicly in April that the virus was threatening the U.S. meat supply, prompting the Trump administration to issue an executive order to keep them operating.


It was later revealed by The New York Times that Smithfield and other meatpackers exported record amounts of pork to China in April while they were warning of shortages, prompting Ms. Warren and Mr. Booker to demand more detailed information about the companies’ exports.


The companies have said many of those exports were packaged before the pandemic. In its letter to the senators, Smithfield, which is owned by a Chinese company, did not disclose how much it exported to China. Mr. Sullivan said...


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'Spread out? Where?' Smithfield says not all plant workers can be socially distanced


By Tom Polansek, Thomson Reuters

via WKZO (MI) - July 24, 2020


CHICAGO (Reuters) - Smithfield Foods, the world's biggest pork processor, said workers cannot be socially distant in all areas of its plants, in response to U.S. senators who pressed meatpackers on coronavirus outbreaks in slaughterhouses.


Meatpackers are under mounting pressure to protect workers after more than 16,000 employees in 23 states were infected with COVID-19 and 86 workers died in circumstances related to the respiratory disease, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.


Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker last month said Smithfield, Tyson Foods Inc, JBS USA [JBS.UL] and Cargill Inc [CARG.UL] had put workers in harm's way to maintain production. The senators asked the companies how much meat they shipped to China while warning of domestic shortages due to slaughterhouse outbreaks.


Smithfield, in a June 30 response made public on Friday, said it erected physical barriers and took other steps to protect workers in areas where social distancing is impossible.


The company, owned by China's WH Group Ltd, balked at slowing processing line speeds to increase space between employees. It said slowdowns would back up hogs on farms, leading to animal euthanizations and higher food prices.


"For better or worse, our plants are what they are," Smithfield Chief Executive Kenneth Sullivan said. "Four walls, engineered design, efficient use of space, etc. Spread out? Okay. Where?"


Tyson told the senators it decreased the number of employees on production lines and created barriers or required face shields in areas where employees cannot be distanced.


"These companies clearly cannot be trusted to do what is right," said Booker...





Smithfield CEO defends coronavirus response, says plants adapted 'as fast as possible'


Lisa Kaczke, Sioux Falls Argus Leader (SD)

July 24, 2020


Smithfield Foods, which closed its Sioux Falls plant in April after it became the nation's largest COVID-19 hotspot, defended its response to the pandemic in a letter to U.S. senators made public on Friday.


Smithfield CEO Kenneth Sullivan didn't give specifics in response to questions asking for the number of Smithfield workers who became ill with COVID-19 or when it implemented practices to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 at its plants, instead saying the company adapted its facilities to the pandemic "as fast as possible." He repeatedly referred to Smithfield workers as "heroes" in his 14-page letter, signed by thousands of employees in support.


Those who question why Smithfield didn't have masks available for its employees in March are "revisionist historians," and those accusing Smithfield of being slow to implement personal protective equipment at its plants are critics who "refuse to be bound to reality and practicality," he wrote. He defended the company's lack of personal protective equipment by saying that federal guidance in March was to not wear masks and it was difficult to find millions of masks for workers at a time when many were trying to obtain masks.


"Think this has been easy?" Sullivan wrote. "It has not. I would gladly let you live in my shoes."


Sullivan's letter, dated June 30, was in response to an inquiry into meat processing facilities during the pandemic by U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Cory Booker, D-N.J. The two senators sent letters requesting information to Tyson, JBS, Cargill and Smithfield as part of their investigation.


In his letter, Sullivan accused Warren and Booker already forming conclusions before they heard his response. He alleged that the two senators have "a fundamental misunderstanding" of the nation's food supply chain, agriculture and exports' role in a farm economy.


Smithfield initially closed its Sioux Falls plant for three days in April, but then closed for several weeks after Gov. Kristi Noem and Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken sent a letter to the company asking operations to close for two weeks. The COVID-19 cluster connected to the facility totaled 851 employees and 245 of their close contacts testing positive, according to the South Dakota Department of Health.


Smithfield is currently asking the courts to intervene in a federal investigation of the outbreak at the Sioux Falls plant.


Smithfield workers aren't "exploited or unaware of the risks," and Smithfield was alone during the pandemic with support being "very difficult to find," Sullivan wrote to Warren and Booker. He reiterated several times that the company continued to operate during the pandemic to sustain the nation's food supply and not because of profits.


Smithfield paid about 7,000 employees at six plants that closed, according to Sullivan. It also offered paid leave to employees who were older and/or at higher risk for serious complications, according to Sullivan. The company has "liberal leave and pay policies" for quarantined employees and spent "tens of millions of dollars" on personal protective equipment for workers, he wrote.


"The accusation that we have been unwilling to implement worker protections is patently and demonstrably false," Sullivan wrote.


Sullivan declined to say how many employees contracted COVID-19, been hospitalized or died of it, writing that "employees should never be reduced to numbers." He noted that the number of Smithfield employees who have died of COVID-19 is in the low hundredths of 1% of its total workforce...





READ: Smithfield Foods CEO's 14-page letter about its response to the coronavirus

Says the company did not get enough support from its 'stakeholders'


by Todd Epp, KELO (SD)

July 24, 2020


WASHINGTON ( -- The CEO of Smithfield Foods sent a 14-page letter in response to allegations from U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker that the pork processing giant was not doing enough to protect its workers.


Sioux Falls has a Smithfield pork packing plant. It was a hotspot for the coronavirus in March and April. The company shut it down for a time to try to increase social distancing and add other enhancements to protect workers from the virus.


CEO Kenneth Sullivan minced no words.


"Your letter (of June 22, 2020) is fraught with misinformation about our company and industry that appears to be strictly gleaned from media outlets that have made statements and inferences that grossly mischaracterize us, our values and response to COVID-19," Sullivan wrote.


He added that the Senators were attempting to turn the company into "a political pawn." Sullivan wrote.


"We are apolitical in our determination to fight through this crisis, and we wish representatives in Washington could unite on the need to feed Americans during a national emergency," Sullivan notes.


He had additional criticism of the media.


"Candidly, we are weary of critics in the media who are detached from the realities of this worldwide pandemic," Sullivan wrote.


However, during the pandemic, for example, News has made numerous requests for interviews, information, and clarification about the epidemic to Smithfield's media representatives. Smithfield has not answered our inquiries over the past five months.


Sullivan also praised the workers and said the company was not able to get support from its "stakeholders." He did not elaborate on who these "stakeholders" were.


"In the midst of this global pandemic, our brave team members have stood in the breach. It is unconscionable that we have – for the most part – done so alone," Sullivan wrote. "A broad coalition of stakeholders should have been here with us developing solutions, implementing protections and, at the very least, supporting us. Support has been very difficult to find. Yet, we have soldiered on, guided by an abiding conviction we are doing the right thing."


The letter goes on to note what efforts they took to protect Smithfield workers and to keep the pork supply chain working during the pandemic.


Click here to read the letter from Sullivan to Senators Warren and Booker.




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Senators Slam Meat Companies’ Lack of Transparency

Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren are calling for enforceable COVID-19 safety standards to protect workers at meat plants.


Dan Nosowitz, Modern Farmer

Jul 28, 2020


In late June, prominent senators (and former presidential candidates) Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker opened an investigation into the actions of meatpacking plants during the COVID-19 pandemic.


On Friday, they released the results of that investigation, along with responses from four major meat industry corporations. That probe left the two senators wholly unsatisfied, and they called for much more strict (and enforceable) regulations moving forward.


The Food and Environment Reporting Network, a nonprofit investigative news organization, has found that more than 37,000 meatpacking plant workers tested positive for COVID-19 as of July 27, and at least 168 have died. Meatpacking plants have served as such a hotspot for the disease that many smaller towns and cities in which they’re located have suddenly shot from few positive tests per capita to some of the worst percentages in the country.


The Warren/Booker investigation runs down some of the policy decisions that have led to this point. In April, following dozens of plant closures, the Trump administration published an executive order to push those plants to reopen or remain open. Meat exports to China, a major moneymaker for the American meat industry, surged despite those companies warning the country could experience meat shortages.


Essentially, the Warren/Booker report states that the meat corporations used the COVID-19 pandemic as a cover to continue operations in an unsafe manner, and to push the government into allowing this. The corporations say they have complied with CDC guidelines, though reporting from inside the plants indicate that, in at least some plants, adherence to these guidelines has been either lax or late.


Emails uncovered by ProPublica found that a confused official response, along with differing guidelines among local, state, and federal agencies, combined with the plants’ desire to keep operations moving despite the pandemic.


“If these companies believe they’re doing everything required of them to protect workers, yet workers continue getting sick and dying, then it’s clear that non-enforceable CDC guidance is not enough,” writes Senator Warren in the investigation’s press release. Warren and Booker are calling for what’s called an Emergency Temporary Standard, or ETS, administered by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).


This is something many critics of the government’s COVID-19 response have called for. As it stands today, the meatpacking plants have CDC rules, but these are voluntary. An ETS would allow OSHA to create and strictly enforce rules relating to worker safety during the pandemic, a major step up from the voluntary CDC guidelines. Even in the first omnibus aid bill, on May 15, an ETS was included by Democrats in the House, but then killed in the Senate by Republicans.


Booker has a long history of fighting for reform in the American agriculture industry; his Farm System Reform Act proposal was a major element of his presidential campaign last year. Elizabeth Warren has been a significant opponent of corporate consolidation in the agriculture industry.


The response of the companies was not, say Warren and Booker, transparent. None of the four corporations from which information was requested—JBS, Smithfield Foods, Cargill, and Tyson Foods—gave precise numbers on the number of positive test results or deaths at their plants. Neither Cargill nor JBS even mentioned physical distancing among workers at plants; Smithfield claimed it was not really possible, and Tyson said it is working to provide barriers and shields “where social distancing is not possible.” This, of course, demands the question of why these plants are still operational if even the most basic of guidelines cannot be followed.


The press release...


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