The House Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis includes in its new report on Big Meat’s corporate capture of the Trump Administration includes emails indicating that Governor Kristi Noem’s office was feeding Smithfield information to help it lobby the CDC for weaker health recommendations at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.
In early April, 2020, worker advocates sounded the alarm about increasing coronavirus infections and unsafe working conditions at Smithfield Foods’ slaughterhouse in Sioux Falls. While Governor Kristi Noem and Sioux Falls mayor Paul TenHaken asked Smithfield to shut down for a couple weeks to mitigate the spread of coronavirus, Governor Noem also criticized the media for being too hard on Smithfield. Noem’s other public statements at the time signaled she was more interested in using her connections in Washington to amplify Smithfield’s propaganda and help Smithfield achieve its CEO Kenneth Sullivan’s stated objective of continuing to operate “unabated“.
Part of the Governor’s running interference for Smithfield appears to have included leaking the CDC’s initial draft of recommendations for coronavirus prevention at the Sioux Falls slaughterhouse. On April 21, 2020 (the email is stamped Tue 4/21/2020 12:37:11 a.m. UTC, which means it was actually sent on Monday, April 20, at 7:37 p.m. Pierre time), Noem’s senior policy advisor Maggie Seidel emailed Smithfield VP for corporate affairs and compliance (now chief administrative officer) Keira Lombardo the CDC’s 14-page draft of preliminary recommendations, which were marked “Not for Distribution”:
Note that the CDC sent that initial draft to state epidemiologist Joshua Clayton, to Smithfield Sioux Falls workers’ union leader B.J. Motley, and to three Smithfield corporate guys, an executive VP, the HR director, and the Sioux Falls plant manager. But Seidel, who must have been keeping close tabs on what Noem’s Department of health was doing, felt this draft needed to be kicked up to her own direct contact in the Smithfield chain of command.
Lombardo evidently forwarded Seidel’s message to one of the original recipients, Smithfield executive VP Russ Dokken. Maybe Dokken hadn’t scrolled down to his own copy of the draft direct from the CDC, but that evening at 10:23 p.m., Dokken emailed Dr. Michael Grant, the CDC’s covid-19 field team leader in Sioux Falls, to complain about not getting to look at the preliminary recommendations before the Governor’s Office did:
Check your emails, Russ: the CDC sent you a copy of the draft directly before the Department of Health’s Dr. Clayton evidently passed it on to the Governor’s Office. If you have any complaint, it’s with the Department of Health, not the CDC. Just before midnight, Dr. Grant expressed his own surprise at this unexpected leakage:
Dokken forwarded Grant’s response to Smithfield CEO Ken Sullivan five hours later, at 4:57 a.m. and said he would discuss that “interesting response” with Grant in the morning before Dokken’s call with Sullivan:
Less than seven hours later, Tuesday morning, April 21, at 11:28 a.m., Sullivan emailed USDA Undersecretary Greg Ibach his hand-annotated copy of the CDC draft, complaining that social distancing was “challenging to achieve in a (dis) assembly plant” and stating that meeting many of the CDC’s recommendations would be “problematic for a 110 year old, 8 story plant.”
Ibach email backed within an hour to tell Sullivan, “Thank you. We are on it.”
Dr. Grant’s CDC team issued its revised recommendations on April 22 to the same recipients of the initial draft, including Smithfield’s Dokken. On April 23, South Dakota Department of Health Secretary Kim Malsam-Rysdon sent a copy directly to Smithfield CEO Sullivan. Smithfield’s Keira Lombardo told KELO-TV that day that Smithfield would “thoroughly and carefully examine the report point by point and respond in full once our assessment is complete.” As we know from the House Subcommittee report, Smithfield’s response was to work with its fellow meat oligopolists to write an executive order for Donald Trump to sign to keep their plants operating amidst a pandemic on false threats of a meat shortage.
And leakage from Governor Kristi Noem’s office helped Smithfield’s CEO stay on top of CDC recommendations and craft their harmful, self-interested response.