The meatpacking industry has been accused of working to downplay the threat of COVID-19 at the start of the pandemic, keeping meatpacking locations open, and not implementing safety regulations intended to slow the virus.

Meatpacking companies were warned about workers becoming sick prior to COVID-19 hitting the United States. Despite this, company representatives worked with officials from the United States Department of Agriculture to fight against implementing COVID-19 regulations and to stoke fears of an impending meat shortage, according to a report from the congressional Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis.

“Meatpacking companies knew the risk posed by the coronavirus to their workers and knew it wasn’t a risk that the country needed them to take," the report reads. "They nonetheless lobbied aggressively — successfully enlisting USDA as a close collaborator in their efforts — to keep workers on the job in unsafe conditions, to ensure state and local health authorities were powerless to mandate otherwise, and to be protected against legal liability for the harms that would result.”


Former President Donald Trump issued an executive order, proposed by Smithfield Foods and Tyson Foods, invoking the Defense Production Act to keep meat plants open in April 2020. The order intended to override health departments, force meat plant employees to keep working without adequate protections from COVID-19, and shield the meat industry from lawsuits, according to the subcommittee.

The same month, meatpacking companies also lobbied USDA officials to advocate Department of Labor policies that deprived employees of benefits if they missed work or quit, while also seeking insulation from legal liability if workers then fell ill or died.

A JBS USA executive told an industry lobbyist in May 2020 that temperature screening was “all we should be doing” for COVID-19 safety precautions. The lobbyist agreed, replying, “Now to get rid of those pesky health departments!”

The North American Meat Institute claimed the subcommittee had "done the nation a disservice" and had cherry-picked data "to support a narrative that is completely unrepresentative of the early days of an unprecedented national emergency.”

“The Meat Institute and its member companies voluntarily provided hundreds of thousands of pages to the Committee," the statement read. "The report ignores the rigorous and comprehensive measures companies enacted to protect employees and support their critical infrastructure workers."

Tyson Foods was contacted by and collaborated with federal, state, and local officials from both the Trump and Biden administrations, and its interactions were "crucial to ensuring the essential work of the U.S. food supply chain and our continued efforts to keep team members safe," the company told the Washington Examiner. Smithfield Foods "invested more than $900 million to support worker safety" and has "exceeded CDC and OSHA guidelines," the company said.


At least 59,000 workers at the five largest meatpacking companies, including Tyson Foods, JBS USA Holdings, Smithfield Foods, Cargill, and National Beef Packing Company, tested positive for COVID-19 in the first year of the pandemic, with at least 269 deaths recorded from the cases.