Foster Farms and USDA Worked Hand in Hand Against California Workers
by Stephen Knight
Congress has issued a report on the collusion between the US Department of Agriculture and the meatpacking industry, early in the COVID-19 pandemic, to block necessary protections for workers and keep their dangerous plants open. The report is titled: Now to get rid of those pesky healthy departments!
As with so many Trump-era outrages, it seems that a lot of what happened was apparent at the time. The industry immediately knew of the extreme risk to their workforce. A 2020 lawsuit disclosed that managers at a Tyson plant placed bets on how many of their employees would get the deadly disease. And “company executives intentionally stoked fears about meat shortages in order to justify continuing to operate the plants under dangerous conditions.” In response to the sham meat shortages, the administration invoked the Defense Production Act — a measure it “had refused to use… to help the victims of COVID-19.” Hundreds of workers died.
The Congressional report documents anti-worker safety collusion between some of the wealthiest and most powerful entities in the nation: federal Cabinet officials and near-monopoly corporate interests. Here in California, Foster Farms executives identified COVID-19 worker protections as an obstacle to their profit making. Federal officials leaped to intervene against the workers, and to “intimidate” public health officials trying to protect their community in Merced County:
By May 2020, meatpacking companies and political appointees at USDA were regularly attempting to stifle regulatory attempts by state and local health authorities in order to force plants to stay open despite coronavirus risks. For example, on May 15, 2020, an industry representative emailed Under Secretary Brashears, Under Secretary Ibach, and their respective deputies a document containing “new CA guidance,” noting that it said to “Practice six-foot physical distancing to the greatest extent possible” and highlighting in yellow a clause saying: “even if this means production slows down.” Without first asking whether or why the representative took issue with this document, Brashears responded saying, “We will discuss ASAP and get back to you.” Later that day, the representative emailed other trade associations, saying that she was “on the phone with USDA” before noting that the California guidance was “Not consistent with USDA expectations and the OSHA/CDC guidance or the EO,” referencing OSHA/CDC guidance for meatpacking plants and an executive order that, as explained in Sections III(b)(iii) and (v), were shaped heavily by meatpacking companies.
A particularly stark example of meatpacking companies’ use of USDA political officials to strong-arm state and local health departments occurred in connection with attempts by California’s Merced County Department of Public Health (MCPH) to address a coronavirus outbreak at Foster Farms’ Livingston, California plant that left at least 392 workers sick and eight workers dead. Previous reporting disclosed that MCPH officers received outreach from federal officials telling them they could not shut down the plant after a health order was issued that would have required a suspension of operations. Internal documents received by the Select Subcommittee, as well as survey calls with MCPH officials, now confirm that Foster Farms used USDA to intimidate MCPH and to try to stop MCPH from shutting down the plant.
There is a town hall meeting in Livingston on Sunday May 29 at 1:30p at the Sikh Gurdwara Livingston, 2765 Peach Ave., to share the Congressional findings with the community.
This violation of public trust by government officials and contempt for employee safety by corporate interests is deeply disturbing. And unless there is accountability for this behavior, it is likely to happen again.