by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Coronavirus

Sep 22 2020

Corporate capture in action: e-mails illustrate the meat industry’s role in keeping plants open despite Covid-19

I’ve written previously (see this one, for example) about the meat industry’s role in keeping plants open despite worker illnesses, but much about the industry’s pressures on government has been based on conjecture.  No more.

In another example of the value of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), two groups have obtained e-mails documenting these pressures.

FROM PRO PUBLICA, September 14, 2020: “Emails Show the Meatpacking Industry Drafted an Executive Order to Keep Plants Open: Hundreds of emails offer a rare look at the meat industry’s influence and access to the highest levels of government. The draft was submitted a week before Trump’s executive order, which bore striking similarities.”

The e-mails indicate that the North American Meat Institute (NAMI), the trade association for the meat industry, essentially wrote President Trump’s executive order invoking the Defense Production Act, which forced plants to stay open and workers to continue working under unsafe and highly virus-transmissable conditions.

For example (and look on the site for #6, which does a longer and even more compelling comparison):

FROM PUBLIC CITIZEN, September 15, 2020: “The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the meatpacking industry worked together to downplay and disregard risks to worker health during the pandemic, as shown in documents uncovered by Public Citizen and American Oversight through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.”

The documents show that:

  • The executive order signed by President Donald Trump regarding meatpacking plants, ostensibly invoking the Defense Production Act, was the result of lobbying by the North American Meat Institute, a meat-packing trade association, which prepared what appears to be the first draft of what would become the executive order;
  • The North American Meat Institute repeatedly requested that USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue discourage workers who were afraid to return to work from staying home;
  • Meatpacking plants asked the USDA to intervene on multiple occasions when state and local governments either shut them down over health and safety concerns or sought to impose worker health and safety standards; and
  • Smithfield Foods repeatedly requested that the USDA “order” it to reopen its meat processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D. – despite no legal basis for such an order.

WHAT’S AT STAKE HERE?

Check out Leah Douglas’s ongoing count of Covid-19 cases among meatpacking workers.  Her figures as of September 18, include at least:

  • 804 meatpacking and food processing plants (496 meatpacking and 308 food processing) and 106 farms and production facilities have had confirmed cases of Covid-19.
  • 59,430 workers (42,606 meatpacking workers, 9,571 food processing workers, and 7,253 farmworkers) have tested positive for Covid-19.
  • 254 workers (203 meatpacking workers, 35 food processing workers, and 16 farmworkers) have died.

To state the obvious: corporate capture of government agencies and the presidency is not good for public health or American democracy.

Sep 17 2020

Food companies’ exploitation of Covid-19 for marketing purposes: new report

The NCD [Non-Communicable Disease] Alliance has issued a press release for its latest report, Signalling Virtue, Promoting Harm – Unhealthy Commodity Industries and COVID-19

As the press release explains, the

new report details hundreds of examples of unhealthy commodity industries, led by Big Alcohol, Big Food, and Big Soda, leveraging the COVID-19 pandemic for commercial gain. This report raises concerns of corporate capture during the pandemic by the very industries that are fuelling the burden of NCDs worldwide and putting people at greater risk of severe COVID-19 outcomes.

The Alliance released the report in conjunction with the  Global Week for Action on NCDs and the theme of accountability.

The report includes hundreds of case studies submitted from more than 90 countries of business responses to Covid-19, in these categories.

The report illustrates dozens of examples, and it’s hard to choose the most egregious from among so many possibilities.  I particularly appreciated this one.

This report is well worth a close look.  I found it highly instructive.

Sep 10 2020

Annals of international food marketing: Lithuanian instant noodles

I often get messages from PR people representing one food product or another.  This one, from Greta Skridailaitė of the Blue Oceans public relations firm, caught my eye.

Hello Marion​,

In order to satisfy the rising need for instant food in the European FMCG retail market KG Group – one of the biggest agriculture and food groups in the Baltic States – is launching a modern instant noodle production facility in Alytus city, Lithuania, having attracted 20M EUR investment.

Global Instant Noodle market is growing despite the Covid-19 turmoil and is predicted to reach USD 32.1 Billion by 2027. Until recently, most of the instant food has been produced and imported from different Asian countries.

Exclusive reliance on Asian suppliers has shown its drawbacks as supply chains were cut or unreliable during the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, many companies began exploring local production options, seeking to alter their supply chains and be less dependent on Asia, especially China.

Below, please find a press release with comments from the Chairman of the Board of KG Group, Tautvydas Barštys.

Please advise if you have additional questions for the KG Group representatives – we’d be happy to help facilitate an interview.

Kind regards,

Greta

Really?

  • Rising need for instant food?
  • 20 million Euro investment?
  • $32.1 billion in instant noodles by 2027?
  • Fears of not being able to get them from China?

I live on an entirely different food planet, alas, but I particularly loved this one because my grandparents came to the US from Lithuania in the early 1900s.

Sep 7 2020

Enjoy a thoughtful, safe, and delicious Labor Day

This is the day to honor the farm, meatpacking, slaughterhouse, grocery,  and other low-wage food system workers deemed essential during the Covid-19 pandemic.

And this seems like good advice.

Enjoy the day!

 

Aug 26 2020

Fox guarding chickens: OSHA’s worker-safety partnership with the meat industry

The Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has formed an alliance with the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) to

provide NAMI’s members, workplace safety and health professionals, the meatpacking and processing workforce, and the public with information, guidance, and access to training resources that will help them protect workers by reducing and preventing exposure to Coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19), and understand the rights of workers and the responsibilities of employers under the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

NAMI’s motto is “One unified voice for meat and poultry companies, large and small.”  Its members are listed here.

OSHA’s stated mission

With the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, Congress created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to ensure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance.

  • Do we see a potential conflict of interest here?  Indeed, we do.

Basically, the Alliance aims to

  • Share information…regarding potential exposure to COVID-19 and the challenges for exposure control in meat packing and processing facilities.
  • Develop information on the recognition of COVID-19 transmission risks and best practices.
  • Conduct outreach through joint forums, roundtable discussions, stakeholder meetings, webinars, or other formats on OSHA guidance and NAMI’s good practices.
  • Speak, exhibit, or appear at OSHA and NAMI conferences…regarding good practices.
  • Encourage NAMI members…to utilize OSHA’s On-Site Consultation Program to improve health and safety and prevent COVID-19 transmission.

This looks like meat industry propaganda to me.

As quoted by Food Dive, Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, called the deal “an outrage.” His statement:

Throughout the pandemic, employers have continued to keep workers and the general public in the dark about illness in the plants while trying to shield themselves from any liability for the role they played in the loss of life. It is shocking that the Department of Labor is now giving the meat industry even more power to police itself on worker safety.

He’s not kidding.  The Food and Environment Reporting Network is tracking cases.  As of August 17, its figures show confirmed cases of Covid-19 in

  • 474 meatpacking plants among 40,708 meatpacking work (189 deaths)
  • 269 food processing plants among 8658 food processing workers (34 deaths)

No surprisae, workers have filed thousands of complaints with OSHA.

What has OSHA done for them?  It co-issued (with CDC) guidance on what companies ought to be doing about distancing and masking. 

Are companies following this guidelines?  Not with much conviction.

That is why workers have had to resort to filing lawsuits against Smithfield Foods and Tyson Foods—and OSHA—as summarized by ProPublica.

According to Politico (behind a paywall, unfortunately), the lawsuits reveal that OSHA admits that it is unable to police its own safety guidelines.

Although an inspector from OSHA’s Wilkes-Barre Area Office witnessed employees working “2 to 3 feet” apart without physical barriers — which goes against the Centers for Disease Control and OSHA’s safety recommendations — the agency concluded there was no “imminent danger” at the plant, the inspector testified during a July 31 hearing.

As always, it’s hard to make up stuff like this.

Aug 25 2020

Food insecurity is rising, especially among kids

The Wall Street Journal reports “More Americans Go Hungry Amid Coronavirus Pandemic, Census Shows.

As of late last month, about 12.1% of adults lived in households that didn’t have enough to eat at some point in the previous week, up from 9.8% in early May, Census figures show. And almost 20% of Americans with kids at home couldn’t afford to give their children enough food, up from almost 17% in early June.

The most shocking revelation?  Try this.

What’s going on here?

If ever there was a need for policy, this is it.

Aug 19 2020

The latest on USDA’s food boxes: they now come with a personal note from Trump

I learned about this latest development in the ongoing sage of USDA’s food boxes from Maine Representative Chellie Pingree on Twitter.

Trump’s letter is here.

The letter from members of Congress to USDA is here.

It has a list of ten questions, among them my two favorites:

5. Identify the total amount of funding expended or obligated to plan, coordinate, draft, review, provide stakeholder or public notification, and disseminate the President’s letter. Include the specific regulatory or statutory authorities associated with such funding.

7. Explain the rationale for why the letter is signed by the President on White House letterhead rather than by the Secretary of Agriculture and/or the Secretary of Health and Human Services.

Politico Morning Agriculture asks (“A new front in the food box fracas,” August 17):

So what’s the upshot? Besides heightened scrutiny of the ongoing effort, the new controversy could further motivate key lawmakers who are pushing to tighten restrictions on how the department spends any future farm relief funds — assuming Congress and the White House ever agree on a new stimulus package…

Aug 18 2020

The UK takes on obesity: a new campaign

Boris Johnson, the UK’s admittedly overweight prime minister, has suddenly become a champion of anti-obesity policy, following his bout with Covid-19.

As the Washington Post puts it, “Boris Johnson says ‘I was too fat’ as he launches anti-obesity campaign.”

The campaign is based on two reports, one detailing the high and growing prevalence of obesity in Great Britain and its links to Covid-19 susceptibility.

The second is a government policy report, which says it is

  • introducing a new campaign – a call to action for everyone who is overweight to take steps to move towards a healthier weight, with evidence-based tools and apps with advice on how to lose weight and keep it off
  • working to expand weight management services available through the NHS [National Health Service], so more people get the support they need to lose weight
  • publishing a 4-nation public consultation to gather views and evidence on our current ‘traffic light’ label to help people make healthy food choices
  • introducing legislation to require large out-of-home food businesses, including restaurants, cafes and takeaways with more than 250 employees, to add calorie labels to the food they sell
  • consulting on our intention to make companies provide calorie labelling on alcohol
  • legislating to end the promotion of foods high in fat, sugar or salt (HFSS) by restricting volume promotions such as buy one get one free, and the placement of these foods in prominent locations intended to encourage purchasing, both online and in physical stores in England
  • banning the advertising of HFSS products being shown on TV and online before 9pm and holding a short consultation as soon as possible on how we introduce a total HFSS advertising restriction online

The UK food industry does not like this.  It insists that this campaign is “a terrible missed opportunity.”

I was interested to see Hank Cardello’s comment on this (Cardello is with the conservative Hudson Institute in the US): “How A Libertarian Is Tackling Obesity And Why Big Food Should Worry.”  Cardello thinks that Johnson’s efforts are the wave of the future.  The food industry should stop fighting public health measures, he says.  Instead, it should:

  • Get ahead of imposed regulations instead of resisting change. Instead of fighting public health initiatives, they can lead the way with research that defines workable steps to reverse the obesity crisis.
  • Educate with public service ads. It’s time that food and restaurant corporations air public service announcements (PSAs) about healthy eating and the impact of high sugar, salt and fat on health and obesity.
  • Commit to a BHAG (”Big Hairy Audacious Goal”). They can decide, for instance, that at least 50% of the products they sell will be healthier versions or in smaller portions.

Wouldn’t that be terrific, and it’s great that he’s saying so (I keep telling him that he sounds more like me every day).

But can food companies follow his advice?  Not as long as they put profits to shareholders, first, alas.

That’s what really needs to change.