The largest U.S. meat companies got positively roasted in a report from a Congressional committee about their response to COVID.
The committee, a bipartisan select panel convened to look into this issue, pretty much accused them of lying about the state of America’s meat supply so they could force their employees back to work. The report’s language, as quoted in the Washington Post, gets pretty harsh:
[D]espite awareness of the high risks of coronavirus spread in their plants, meatpacking companies engaged in a concerted effort with Trump Administration political officials to insulate themselves from coronavirus-related oversight, to force workers to continue working in dangerous conditions, and to shield themselves from legal liability for any resulting worker illness or death.
There’s no denying that Big Meat made a big push to keep their plants open in the early stages of the pandemic. Remember those full-page ads – “The food supply is breaking” – that John Tyson ran in April 2020? And there’s no denying that it did not look good when Smithfield Foods and JBS subsequently increased their exports to China.
But as I see it, there are two possible interpretations of these events:
1. Big Meat did indeed conspire to fool us about the state of the meat supply, all so that they could selfishly expose their workers to danger and reap windfall profits.
2. Big Meat, like the rest of us, was confused and apprehensive during the early stages of the pandemic, and erred on the side of caution.
My own inclination is toward No. 2, for various reasons. The degree of concentration in meat processing can lead to far-reaching effects if a single large plant goes down, as we saw in early 2020. As it turned out, plant closures didn’t lead to widespread meat shortages, but there was no way for meat executives or anyone else to know that at the time.
But there are a lot of people in this country who are leaning toward interpretation No. 1, and some of them are in a position to exact real consequences from the industry. Reports of Big Meat’s huge profits coming out of the pandemic won’t help.
The meat industry’s public image has been taking a beating for a while now. If there ever were a time to be conscious of appearances, this is it.