Smithfield Foods ends lawsuit against OSHA

Published 5:14 pm Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Smithfield Foods has ended its lawsuit against the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which had sought to block the federal agency from gaining access to information the company had provided to the South Dakota Department of Health concerning an outbreak of COVID-19 at its Sioux Falls plant in April.

That month, the Sioux Falls plant temporarily closed due to more than 800 of its 3,700 employees testing positive for the virus, according to the Associated Press.

OSHA, which is tasked with enforcing standards for safe working conditions, had subpoenaed the health department in June, seeking documents concerning COVID-19 test results for Sioux Falls plant workers, correspondence between the department and Smithfield and other information, including any recommendations the department had made to Smithfield to combat the spread of the virus.

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The company had sought to be allowed to review department of health documents concerning the outbreak prior to their being given to OSHA. According to court documents, Smithfield had claimed some of the information sought by OSHA would violate its employees’ right to privacy and the company’s right to due process.

“The Company views this as an attempt to end-run OSHA’s standard investigative process and associated procedural safeguards, and obtain from a third party what it could not obtain through a standard investigation … In effect, the Subpoena takes advantage of Smithfield’s voluntary cooperation with DOH [the Department of Health] by using the information disclosed for scientific and public health purposes against Smithfield in an adversarial context,” states a letter the law firm Hutton Andrews Kurth sent to OSHA on behalf of Smithfield on June 25 — one day before the subpoena’s deadline for the health department to turn over its records.

The U.S. District Court for South Dakota’s Southern District dismissed the suit on July 29 after the company filed a motion claiming that both parties had reached an agreement with respect to the issues raised in Smithfield’s initial motion to quash.

“We are pleased to have reached a resolution with OSHA whereby all necessary documentation requested has been provided and, at the same time, private employee medical and confidential business information will be protected from disclosure to the public and/or will not be made available to our competitors,” said Keira Lombardo, executive vice president of corporate affairs and compliance for Smithfield. “We were simply asking for the opportunity to review these documents to flag such issues and, if our concerns were validated, require that production include confidentiality safeguards. Our employees in Sioux Falls have already experienced discrimination in the community amid the pandemic, and we take our responsibility to protect their private health information seriously.”

The company took out at least two full-page ads in local newspapers since the start of August — one in the Aug. 2 Daily Press and another in the Aug. 5 Smithfield Times — with verbiage decrying “critics perpetuating a false narrative” and “inaccurate media reports” concerning the company’s COVID-19 response. The ads feature a photo of a Smithfield plant worker, clad in personal protective equipment, and a quote from former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt that reads, “It’s not the critic who counts; not the man who points how how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.”

“Some seem intent on using our company and industry as political pawns,” the ad reads. “We, however, have been apolitical in our determination to fight through this pandemic….”

Lombardo denied the ads being related to the lawsuit.

“Our advertisement clearly states our position, namely that, food and agriculture workers are heroes, and unsung ones at that,” she said. “Our entire country owes them an enormous debt of gratitude and far more recognition.”

The ads are quite similar in wording to the company’s response to a letter U.S. Sens Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, both Democrats, wrote to the chief executive officers of four major meatpacking corporations, including Smithfield CEO Kenneth Sullivan, which had questioned whether the industry had been truthful in alleging an impending meat shortage in April should meatpacking plants with confirmed COVID-19 cases continue to shutter.

“You put thousands of your workers in harm’s way to maintain production, dramatically increased prices for U.S. consumers, and successfully lobbied the President to sign an executive order designating your plants as critical infrastructure that allowed them to continue operating in an unsafe fashion … But a new report indicates that during this same time period, your companies were exporting a record amount of pork — 129,000 tons — to consumers in China,” the senators’ letter reads.

Sullivan had in fact warned in mid-April, just after the COVID-19 outbreak at the Sioux Falls plant was made public, that the shuttering of meatpacking plants across the country in response to COVID-19 outbreaks was pushing the United States “perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply.” On April 28, U.S. President Donald Trump signed the executive order the senators reference, invoking his powers under the Defense Production Act to effectively prohibit state and local governments from ordering plants with confirmed COVID-19 outbreaks to close.

Yet that same month, the company, which is owned by the Hong Kong-based WH Group, sent 18.3 million pounds of pork products to China — one of the company’s highest monthly export totals to that market in the past three years, according to the New York Times, citing as its source data from the S&P Global Market Intelligence and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“We have no interest in being a political pawn for either party,” Sullivan writes. “The Executive Order reaffirmed our obligation to continue providing food for the American people and supporting farmers, which is not a partisan issue. We are apolitical in our determination to fight through this crisis … Candidly, we are weary of critics in the media who are detached from the realities of this worldwide pandemic.”

Sullivan goes on to explain that the United States typically has an abundant surplus of meat, producing roughly 25-30% more pork than Americans can consume. A good portion of what is exported, he says, are items that attract little interest from domestic consumers, such as pig tongues and hearts. He then adds that Smithfield is not a Chinese state-owned company, and denies undertaking commercial activity on behalf of the Chinese government. Some of Smithfield’s plants, he explains, are designed for exports, just as others are designed to produce meat in bulk for restaurants.

“Demand shocks from the sudden closure of virtually every restaurant across the country meant supplies normally sold in foodservice channels may have been redirected to export markets,” Sullivan writes. “The meat business is a ‘sell it or smell it’ business.”

According to Lombardo, the Smithfield plant here in town produces fresh pork, bacon and the company’s iconic Genuine Smithfield Ham for U.S. retail, foodservice and industrial channels, and was recently retooled to service additional domestic customers.

The senators accused each company of having manipulated the pandemic to achieve substantial deregulatory measures, such as waivers from the USDA to increase production line speed. According to their letter, the USDA granted more waivers in one week in April than it had in any previous month over the past eight years — waivers that included plants with COVID-19 outbreaks.

According to a memorandum from CDC officials to the South Dakota Department of Health, which was included as evidence in Smithfield’s recently-dismissed lawsuit, the federal agency had, in fact, warned that changes in production practices, such as reducing line speed, may be necessary in order to maintain appropriate distancing among employees. While the CDC’s webpage devoted to guidance from that agency and OSHA for meat and poultry processing workers and employers makes no mention of reducing line speed, an included graphic on social distancing shows a “bad” example of meatpacking employees working less than six feet away from each other, followed by three “good” examples where employees are properly distanced, all of which show fewer cuts of meat on the conveyor belt than in the “bad” example.

“It is no secret that social distancing is the biggest challenge we have faced as an industry,” Sullivan writes in response to this allegation. “Most manufacturing plants, of any kind, are not designed for it … 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?”

The plant here in town has not received a USDA waiver to increase line speed, Lombardo said.

The senators had also asked for site-specific totals for the number of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths to occur among Smithfield workers at each of the company’s plants, but Smithfield didn’t include this data in its response. Sullivan, instead, replied, “Employees should never be reduced to numbers; even one loss scars our hearts … The number of our employees lost to this global pandemic is measured in the low hundredths of one percent of our total workforce. Said differently, you have to go four decimal places to the right of zero before a number appears.”