Emails Show the Meatpacking Industry Drafted an Executive Order to Keep Plants Open

Hundreds of emails offer a rare look at the meat industry’s influence and access to the highest levels of government. The draft was submitted a week before Trump’s executive order, which bore striking similarities.


by Michael Grabell and Bernice Yeung, Propublica 

Sept. 14, 2020


*ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power.


In late April, as COVID-19 raced through meatpacking plants sickening and killing workers, President Donald Trump issued a controversial executive order aimed at keeping the plants open to supply food to American consumers.


It was a relief for the nation’s meatpackers who were being urged, or ordered, to suspend production by local health officials worried about the spread of the coronavirus.


But emails obtained by ProPublica show that the meat industry may have had a hand in its own White House rescue: Just a week before the order was issued, the meat industry’s trade group drafted an executive order that bears striking similarities to the one the president signed.


The draft that Julie Anna Potts, the president of the North American Meat Institute, sent to top officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture was written using the framework of an official executive order and stressed the importance of the food supply chain and how outbreaks had reduced production — themes later addressed in the president’s order.


It invoked the president’s powers under a Korean War-era law known as the Defense Production Act and proposed that the president make a simple and straightforward proclamation: “I hereby order that critical infrastructure food companies continue their operations to the fullest extent possible.”


What happened next within the USDA and White House isn’t clear from the records. The USDA declined to answer questions, and the White House did not respond to requests for comment. But while the final wording wasn’t verbatim, Trump’s order emphasized the points the industry had proposed and furthered the same goal, directing the agriculture secretary to take action “to ensure that meat and poultry processors continue operations.”


The order provided a lifeline for meatpacking companies stressed by dozens of plant closures, severe staffing shortages and supply chain disruptions that would cause fast food restaurants to run out of hamburgers and grocery stores to ration meat purchases.


But it has also generated significant criticism from labor unions and Democratic senators who said it prioritized the bottom line of the nation’s meatpackers over the health of their workers.


The executive order effectively provided a justification, sanctioned by the White House, for meat companies to continue operations even as tens of thousands of the industry’s workers contracted the disease.


“It certainly gives rise to at least the appearance of favoritism that the executive order was done not because the White House thought it was the right thing to do but because they were getting pressure from outside groups that wanted it done,” said Stephen Vladeck, a constitutional law professor at the University of Texas at Austin.


In a statement, Potts said that the meat institute had been working as a liaison between the government and industry on many issues related to COVID-19. “Trade associations of all types routinely suggest legislative language, comment on proposed rules, and other provisions that are shared with the government,” she said.


The documents obtained by ProPublica offer a rare look at the process of drafting an executive order and a glimpse into the meat industry’s influence and access to the highest levels of government. Such political support has been crucial for the industry, which had dismissed years of warnings from the federal government to plan for a pandemic, sowing chaos in rural communities as they battled local health departments over outbreaks in their plants.


The draft executive order was one of hundreds of emails between the companies, industry groups and top officials at the USDA since March. Together, they show that throughout the coronavirus crisis, the meatpacking industry has repeatedly turned to the agency for help beating back local public health orders and loosening regulations to keep processing lines running.


While special interest groups often submit draft legislation and regulations to policymakers, legal experts said executive orders are less common and aren’t subject to the same public scrutiny.


In interviews, former White House lawyers from Democratic and Republican administrations said that there is great latitude in how executive orders are generated and it wasn’t unusual for private interest groups of all types to promote their causes by pushing for an executive order. It is also reasonable for the White House to seek input from outside entities during the process. But there would typically be an effort to consult a range of parties who might be affected by it before the order received legal scrutiny, they said. The quick seven-day turnaround, even amid an emergency like COVID-19, is notable, some said.


“All policy is shaped by people who have a stake in it,” said Rakesh Kilaru, associate counsel and special assistant to President Barack Obama from 2015 to 2017. “But I can’t think of something that was so direct between the stakeholder asking for action and getting it.”


Jonathan Adler, a constitutional and administrative law professor at Case Western Reserve University, said there’s nothing “inherently inappropriate” about the industry helping to draft the order. “The concern is that, in a case like this, if the executive order is slanted to a particular interest rather than the public at large,” he said.


The United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents workers responsible for the majority of U.S. beef and pork production, said no one from the White House or the USDA sought its input before the executive order was issued.


Mark Lauritsen, the UFCW’s director of food processing, packing and manufacturing, said he believes the Meat Institute “along with some of the other bigger players in the industry pulled every lever they could.”


The order has been effective as a political tool because it is widely perceived to have far more legal force than it actually does. From a legal standpoint, the executive order gave Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue additional power to issue his own orders related to the food supply — something he hasn’t done.


But many state and local health officials view the order as superseding their authority or decided to back off in the face of political pressure from the Trump administration. Within a week of the executive order, the USDA was working with companies and local health authorities to reopen shuttered plants. With workers back on the line, operations ramped up again. Pork production, for example, had fallen by more than half by the end of April, causing steep financial losses. But by early June, meatpacking plants were nearly back to capacity.


Since the order, however, COVID-19 infections among meatpacking workers have multiplied. To date, there have been more than 43,000 cases and at least 195 deaths among meatpacking employees, according to data compiled by ProPublica from public health agencies and news reports.


Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that almost from the start of the crisis, the meatpacking industry and the USDA were largely focused on how to keep workers on the line...


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