SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Smithfield USA is the defendant in a lawsuit filed in Washington, D.C. by advocacy group Food & Water Watch (FWW). The group filed suit alleging that Smithfield misled and continues to mislead consumers about the state of the national meat supply chain and the company’s workplace safety practices.
FWW is a public-interest, non-profit advocacy organization which focuses on environmental and consumer protections. One of their priority issues is accountability within the industrial livestock industry.
FWW says that Smithfield violated the District of Columbia’s consumer protection law by lying to consumers in order to increase profit.
First, FWW says that Smithfield misrepresented to consumers that a countrywide meat shortage was imminent in a ploy to stoke public panic in order to create greater demand for their products.
Second, FFW claims that Smithfield has misrepresented working conditions in the plant to allay concerns about worker safety while using the specter of a pork shortage to justify subjecting its workers to unsafe conditions that have caused thousands of Smithfield workers to contract the virus.
When reached for comment on the lawsuit, a representative for Smithfield provided the following statement from the company’s Chief Administrative Officer, Keira Lombardo:
“We have not been served with a copy of this purported complaint and have not had adequate time to review the allegations or prepare any substantive response to them.Keira Lombardo
The advocacy organizations who make these claims have a stated goal of dismantling the efforts of our hard-working employees, who take great pride in safely producing food products.
To be clear, our health and safety measures, guided by medical and workplace safety expertise, have been comprehensive as our teams have worked from coast to coast to protect the food supply during the pandemic.”
In April of 2020, then Smithfield USA CEO Kenneth Sullivan stated that the nation was “perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply.”
The company holds up statements in their defense from the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) and the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC). A spokesperson for NAMI stated that by April 2020, “pork and beef slaughter was down by about 50%” and beef slaughter was down by about 50%,” while a representative of NPPC said that “U.S. pork production was in crisis last year,” and “the risk of a pork shortage was very real due to facility shutdowns or slowdowns.”
But FWW says the data doesn’t back these claims up. The lawsuit cites government data which shows pork inventory held in “cold storage” warehouses was well into the hundreds of millions of pounds. Indeed the June 2021 Cold Storage report from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) shows that the U.S. currently has over 405 million pounds of pork in storage. This is down slightly from nearly 468 million pounds last March. Beyond pork, the USDA’s June report shows a total of 6,969,837,000 pounds of red meat in cold storage.
When it comes to their defense of Smithfield, FWW Staff Attorney Emily Miller says that NAMI and NPPC are industry lobby groups. “It’s in their best interest to represent their members like Smithfield and try to defend their actions,” she says. “These people have the incentive to promote and protect the industrial meat industry, and that’s what they’re doing.”
Discussing Smithfield’s claims of comprehensive health and safety measures, Miller says there have also been untruthful statements.
“Smithfield repeatedly represented that it was doing everything it could to protect its processing plant workers; from providing PPE to relaxing its leave policies to partnering with state and local health departments — these claims have been directly refuted by government safety regulators who have documented Smithfield’s workplace safety failures. Nowhere were the corporations lack of worker protections more apparent than in Sioux Falls — with over 1,200 workers contracting the virus.”Emily Miller
Miller says that Smithfield’s motivations were profit-driven and that their statements warning of shortages were false. “Food and Water Watch alleges that [it] would never have gotten to the point of no meat in the stores should Smithfield have taken the measures it should have taken to protect its workers.”
According to Miller, this issue has not been exclusive to the pandemic. “Even before the pandemic, the meatpacking industry was known for notoriously unsafe and dangerous workplaces and working conditions, and I think that was only exacerbated by the pandemic,” she says. “Their workers are working shoulder to shoulder for many many hours at a time doing grueling work. Those conditions really led to the outbreaks that we were seeing. For Smithfield to hold out its profit and its ability to sell more meat as a reason not to protect its workers is shocking and wrong.”
“Really, what it boils down to,” says Miller “is Smithfield aggressively curated this impression that they were a good, responsible and safety first company when that was not the case.”
Miller says the complaint has officially been filed, and now Smithfield will have the opportunity to either answer the complaint or move to have the case thrown out.