Smithfield Sued for Profiting From Covid Meat-Shortage Fears

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A consumer advocacy group is suing Smithfield Foods Inc. for allegedly fueling fears of a meat shortage during the pandemic to boost demand and prices for its products.

Food & Water Watch filed a lawsuit on June 16 in Washington, D.C., claiming Smithfield, the top U.S. pork producer, sought to drive up demand even as it had ample reserves in cold storage and increased exports, mostly to China. The lawsuit also alleges the company misled the public about safety measures for its workers.

In April of last year, as flights were being grounded and lockdowns were spreading, Smithfield’s then-chief executive officer, Ken Sullivan, publicly warned the country was “perilously close” to a meat shortage after the meatpacker’s pork-processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, temporarily shut down following an outbreak of more than 200 cases at the facility. It was among many meat plants that became early epicenters of the pandemic, adding to trucking bottlenecks, snarled port traffic and other disruptions in global supply chains.

Smithfield Sued for Profiting From Covid Meat-Shortage Fears

In August, Smithfield took out a full-page ad in Sunday’s edition of the New York Times to accuse its critics of false narratives and misinformation and to defend its operations to keep the nation fed during the pandemic. Critics of how the spread of Covid-19 in meat plants was handled included Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

The advocacy group has “a stated goal of dismantling the efforts of our hard-working employees, who take great pride in safely producing food products,” Keira Lombardo, Smithfield’s chief administrative officer, said in an emailed statement Monday, adding the company had not been served with a copy of the complaint and didn’t have adequate time to review the allegations. “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.”

The lawsuit, filed by legal advocacy group Public Justice on behalf of Food & Water Watch in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, accuses the company of “a distinctly aggressive public relations campaign geared toward leveraging the pandemic to increase its profits” through misrepresentations about an imminent shortage.

“This fearmongering creates a revenue-generating feedback loop. It stokes and exploits consumer panic -- juicing demand and sales -- and in turn, provides the company with a false justification to keep its slaughterhouses operating at full tilt,” the advocacy group said in the complaint.

The suit also alleges that, as meatpacking plants became early epicenters of the pandemic, the company mounted a campaign to assuage consumer concerns about workers’ health that was belied by later regulatory findings of safety violations at Smithfield facilities.

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