Smithfield Foods lost its bid to dismiss a case alleging that the meatpacking giant repeatedly lied to consumers throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to protect its bottom line at the expense of its workers’ health and safety.
The decision from Judge Heidi M. Pasichow, released on July 22, means that the case, filed by the advocacy group Food & Water Watch in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, will proceed. The group is represented by itself and Public Justice.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and especially in the early stages of the global health crisis, Smithfield has mounted an aggressive public relations campaign to bolster its image and keep its production plants operating at full capacity despite the grave risk to workers.
When major COVID-19 outbreaks struck Smithfield plants in 2020, the company told consumers that closing processing plants to protect workers’ lives would result in national meat shortages. It also reassured the public that its pandemic safety protocols were keeping workers as safe as possible — a claim it continues to make to this day.
The lawsuit alleges both claims are false. The country was never in danger of a meat shortage: at the height of the pandemic, Smithfield increased its exports and held billions of pounds of meat in warehouses across the country. The company’s fearmongering led to record sales — and profits. Meanwhile, Smithfield has consistently failed to implement essential safety measures at its processing plants, and workers still face dangerous working conditions, particularly as new COVID variants emerge.
As the company sought to have the case dismissed, a congressional report exposed the role that Smithfield and other meatpacking giants played in inciting panic about the national meat supply, and documented how companies like Smithfield aggressively lobbied the federal government to keep plants running with “glaringly deficient” safety protocols, endangering workers’ lives. The report also revealed how Smithfield actively impeded state and federal policies that would have better protected all meatpacking workers, including its own.
“While Smithfield told the public it was doing ‘everything in its power’ to protect its workers, the company was actually cutting backroom deals with federal regulators that halted life-saving safety precautions from being instituted at its plants,” said Emily Miller, Staff Attorney at Food & Water Watch. “We are grateful that the court will provide us an opportunity to make our case, and to deliver justice for workers and consumers who continue to be harmed by Smithfield’s reckless behavior and incessant fearmongering.”
“Smithfield lied to consumers about workers’ protections from COVID-19 and even made up a story about an impending national meat shortage—all to justify continuously operating its slaughterhouses at full tilt at the height of the pandemic, no matter how many workers or people in the surrounding community got sick,” said Public Justice Budd Attorney Ellen Noble. “Public Justice is glad that the court quickly denied Smithfield’s motion to dismiss, recognizing that Food & Water Watch has properly alleged violations under the DC Consumer Protection Procedures Act (CPPA) and should have an opportunity to seek discovery and prove its case. We look forward to doing just that.”
Food & Water Watch is also represented by Berger Montague and Towards Justice.