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Food and Water Watch Sues Smithfield for Lying About Meat Shortages, Worker Safety

When Smithfield Foods resisted calls from its workers, the public, and the CDC to do more to protect workers from coronavirus last year, CEO Kenneth Sullivan cried that slowing down Smithfield’s operations to keep workers from getting coronavirus would hurt America’s food security. Sullivan’s concerns sounded like exaggeration and fearmongering, especially in light of Smithfield’s and other meat-makers‘ expanding exports of meat to China.

Consumer advocates Food & Water Watch say Smithfield’s profit-protecting protestations violate the District of Columbia’s Consumer Protection Procedures Act and are taking the Chinese-owned meat grinder to court:

…according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday in Washington, D.C. by Food & Water Watch (FWW), a non-profit consumer advocacy group… [e]ven as Smithfield warned of a meat shortage, the company was exporting pork outside of the country….

The lawsuit also cited government data, which showed the US pork inventory in cold storage “was well into the hundreds of millions of pounds.” Analysts estimated such an inventory would keep grocery stores supplied for “months,” the lawsuit stated [Danielle Wiener-Bronner, “Advocacy Group Accuses Smithfield Foods of Falsely Warning of Meat Shortages,” CNN, 2021.06.21].

Food and Water Watch’s complaint includes data showing that America’s meat industry was adding to its already huge stockpiles of meat on ice:

Federal data reviewed by USA TODAY show that although American beef and pork production did tank in a six-week period stretching from mid-March to the executive order, exports of hundreds of millions of pounds of meat continued. The amount of beef and pork products exported over that time period actually exceeded the amount of lost production when compared with 2019 levels.

[Co-executive director of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy Ben] Lilliston pointed out the industry also never drew down meat supplies sitting in “cold storage” warehouses in the middle of the supply chain, which he said would have indicated faltering supply.

In fact, red meat and poultry products in cold storage grew by about 40 million pounds from March to April, reaching 2.5 billion pounds, USDA data show [Kyle Bagenstone, “As Leaders Warned of US Meat Shortages, Overseas Exports of Pork and Beef Continued,” USA Today, 2020.06.16, updated 2021.01.26].

The complaint points to analysis from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy contending that if Smithfield and other meat corporations weren’t driving up demand with fears of shortages, those meat stockpiles could have kept our tummies full for over a year:

If the NASS Cold Storage frozen pork depletion rate were linear (which it isn’t because of non-monthly export consignments, holiday meat buying and panic buying instigated by such statements as Sullivan and John Tyson’s), at 28 million pounds a month, grocery stores could be supplied at current rates for up to 18 months, if all production stopped for 18 months. Which it won’t and doesn’t have to.

A conservative depletion rate of 45 million pounds a month, to take into account non-linearity, would still provide almost a 14 months’ supply of pork from the March 31 NASS baseline. In the meantime, slower production speeds to accommodate COVID-19 required social distancing for meat processing workers could resupply private and public cold storage warehouses to meet both domestic and export pork needs. Similar rates of depletion could be calculated for cold storage frozen beef and poultry products [Dr. Steve Suppan, “Cold Hard (Storage) Facts About Meatpacker Threats of Scarcity,” Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, 2020.05.01].

Food and Water Watch also complains to the DC Superior Court that Smithfield lied to us customers about keeping its workers safe from coronavirus:

Second, Smithfield has misrepresented working conditions in its plants in an effort to allay heightened consumer concerns for worker safety. Line-level meatpacking workers, in part due to false fears of a meat shortage, have been required to work in person throughout the pandemic — often in cramped conditions on crowded production lines. Smithfield has repeatedly assured consumers through advertisements and a comprehensive social media campaign that the company is keeping its workers safe. Indeed, the company has prominently featured workplace safety as an integral part of its marketing and branding efforts during the pandemic.

…Smithfield’s reassurances on workplace safety were equally deceptive. On this score, Smithfield’s track record speaks for itself, with company slaughterhouses repeatedly emerging as epicenters for COVID-19 outbreaks. Moreover, Smithfield’s representations to consumers regarding specific workplace safety protocols — depicted in detailed photographs, videos, and promotional copy amplified through Smithfield’s website and social media accounts — are consistently refuted by safety citations issued by government regulators and the accounts of actual Smithfield workers [Food and Water Watch, press release, 2021.06.21].

FWW asks the court to declare “that Smithfield’s conduct misled and deceived District consumers in violation of the CPPA,” an order “requiring Smithfield to engage in corrective advertising,” statutory damages of $1,500, punitive damages, and litigation costs.

4 Comments

  1. Porter Lansing 2021-06-23

    Best Food Story of Pandemic 2020 – BRAVO

    *Just as you’d expect from the capitalistic Chinese and the scofflaw Tyson

  2. Arlo Blundt 2021-06-23

    Well…very good story…every time we come awake (or are woke up to use that present term) to the business ethic ruling large agricultural corporations (in this case one owned 51% by the Chinese Communist Party and its minions) it seems to be a revelation. They’ve always been on the take, going back to Upton Sinclairs “The Jungle” written circa 1905. Not much, if anything, has changed in their business model except for a robust export market and a destruction of the union representing the workers.

  3. Porter Lansing 2021-06-23

    Arlo … If you’re from Watertown, as I believe you are, you read “The Jungle”, just as I did.
    As powerful and influential as anything I’ve ever read.

  4. mike from iowa 2021-06-26

    Speaking of water worries, Obrien county iowa and Lakes Regional rural water systems have asked users to cut back on water usage due to drought. No shortages as of yet, but they are preparing for a time when their water plants can’t keep up with demand. Obrien county just approved another 5-6 thousand head dairy outfit among all the hog confinements built/being built. I can assure you cafos won’t limit their water usage and will continue to waste vast amounts of water while humans must cujt back.

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