Friday, August 21, 2020

Meatpackers say they couldn't have prepared for pandemic, but ignored years of warnings from public-health officials

Meatpacking companies insist they could not have anticipated the pandemic and acted as quickly as possible to increase safety measures when infections broke out, Michael Grabell and Bernice Yeung report for ProPublica. However, "for more than a dozen years, critical businesses like meatpackers have been warned that a pandemic was coming," they report. "With eerie prescience, infectious disease experts and emergency planners had modeled scenarios in which a highly contagious virus would cause rampant absenteeism at processing plants, leading to food shortages and potential closures. The experts had repeatedly urged companies and government agencies to prepare for exactly the things that Smithfield’s CEO now claims were unrealistic."

Kenneth Sullivan, CEO of Smithfield Foods, wrote in a letter to senators investigating outbreaks in meatpacking: "What no one anticipated, and has never happened in our lifetimes, is the scenario we are living through today . . . That is, our harvest facilities, which are the critical linchpin in the supply chain, could be threatened, en masse, by a global pandemic that threatens our ability to produce food."

John Hoffman, who developed food and agriculture emergency plans at the Department of Homeland Security under George W. Bush, told ProPublica that the pandemic was "an unmitigated disaster for food processors, and it didn’t have to be." Though there are sometimes surprise developments in a pandemic, this one has unfolded "pretty much as the pandemic plan has suggested it would," he said.

But instead of heeding public-health experts' plans to slow the spread of a pandemic through closures, social distancing, masks and other measures, "the industry repeatedly expressed confidence in its ability to handle a pandemic, and when asked to plan, relied on a wait-and-see approach, records and interviews show," Grabell and Yeung report.

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