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Ex-USDA Official Defends Pandemic Efforts to Keep Meatpacking Plants Running

Throughout 2020, industry representatives communicated often with top federal officials leading the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its Food Safety and Inspection Service, the agency charged with overseeing plants.

One Tyson Foods executive said, if its plants continued to face pressure to shut down, “we may need to get Mindy involved.”

Other than Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, perhaps no other person was more central to the department’s effort to keep plants operating than FSIS’s head, Mindy Brashears.

One Tyson Foods executive said, if its plants continued to face pressure to shut down, “we may need to get Mindy involved.” Brashears “hasn’t lost a battle for us,” another industry executive said in an internal email. In short, she was the meat industry’s “go-to fixer,” a Congressional subcommittee concluded in a May report.

Like other top USDA officials, Brashears has remained largely silent about the USDA’s efforts to keep meatpacking plants running. Through his current employer the University of Georgia System, Perdue has declined several opportunities to speak with Investigate Midwest about his time at the USDA.

But in exclusive interviews with Investigate Midwest, Brashears, 52, defended her actions. Her FSIS tenure—laid bare in tens of thousands of emails Congress obtained, thousands of others Public Citizen sued to collect, and numerous news stories—has been mischaracterized, she said.

For instance, she intervened when a California plant, which would be linked to eight COVID-19 deaths, faced closure. The Congressional report didn’t note why it needed time to shut down. She said that if workers left immediately, the plant’s product could spoil.

“When the Congressional report came out, I mean, I’m not going to say it was untruthful. It was completely misrepresented,” she said. “They called me the ‘go-to fixer.’ I was like, ‘Oh my goodness.’ I guess I’ve been called worse.”

Another problem with the report, she explained, is that it doesn’t show her “reporting back” to industry leaders. This undermines its credibility and overall conclusions, she said.

Brashears’ ties to the meat industry are extensive. Before joining the USDA, for example, she was paid $100,000 for her work during a trial to rebuff an ABC News’ story calling a company’s meat product “pink slime,” according to the Texas Observer. She readily admitted to being friends with industry lobbyists.

But in her telling, she provided effective oversight to an industry in crisis. Despite Congress finding the industry’s claims to a meat shortage were likely overheated, Brashears said she focused on keeping food on Americans’ tables.

“Food security is a matter of national security,” she said. “The industry did email me and other undersecretaries. We were all working together and communicating in that way. But what was happening was . . . we would get on the phone and say, ‘OK, what resources do you need?’”

U.S. Department of Agriculture Deputy Under Secretary Mindy Brashears in Washington, D.C., on March 12, 2019. (Photo credit: Lance Cheung)

Her work focused on procuring hand sanitizer, tests and masks for plants at a time when demand far outstripped supply, she said.

Some—including former Occupational Safety and Health Administration head, David Michaels—called for USDA to take a lead role in worker safety because it had inspectors in every large plant in the country on a daily basis. But worker safety wasn’t her job, Brashears said.

“I had no regulatory jurisdiction over worker safety. There were, you know, requests. People were asking, ‘Why aren’t inspectors looking for worker safety?’ Well, they’re not trained for that.

“We were trying to make sure that everyone was talking and communicating and getting the resources that were needed,” she continued. “Because, going back to our personnel that were in the plants, we wanted them to be safe.”

After the report was released, Brashears said she and her colleagues at Texas Tech University, where she now teaches, were threatened.

“They called me all sorts of names and scared (us) to death,” she said. “It was very hard.”

A Texas Tech police incident report shows “unwanted communications” at the university’s administrative building, but a university spokesperson wouldn’t provide more detail when asked. Brashears also declined to describe the incident further, citing the police investigation.

Brashears said the Congressional report blindsided her because she wasn’t interviewed for it.

“They never reached out to me, never emailed me,” she said. “I would have been more than happy to clarify anything. I was never asked, which baffles me.”

The subcommittee had “ample contemporaneous evidence” of Brashears’ actions, a spokesperson said.

“The voluminous evidence cited in the report, more than 150,000 pages, from both governmental and industry sources speaks for itself,” the subcommittee’s spokesperson said in an email to Investigate Midwest. “This investigation’s launch was public and we held a public hearing on the dire conditions in meatpacking plants, but Dr. Brashears did not reach out to the (subcommittee) to share her experiences.”

“I was not put on the job for worker safety. That’s not my area of expertise. I stayed in the job that I was assigned by Congress to do, to protect the U.S. food supply.”

A major criticism of the Trump administration in 2020 was it did very little to prevent meatpacking workers from becoming infected with the virus. OSHA began conducting worker safety inspections remotely, which a government watchdog later found likely led to more dangerous environments for workers.

The USDA also drew scrutiny for its role. Brashears and Loren Sweatt, OSHA’s head at the time, waited months after the pandemic started to begin coordinating, despite both having oversight of meatpacking plants.

The USDA’s regulation of meatpacking plants can be complicated, said Jordan Barab, a high-level Occupational Safety and Health Administration official under former President Obama. OSHA shares oversight of many meatpacking plants with FSIS.

Top officials at the USDA often are tied to the agriculture industry, Barab said. This can be tricky because the department is tasked with both protecting the industry’s interests and regulating its operations.

In his experience, Barab said, Republican administrations, such as Trump’s, discourage government intervention in business.

“Obviously,” he said, “you’ve got an ideology that discourages any type of enforcement or any kind of thing that may be seen as hostile to employers.”

Mark Lauritsen saw the ideology play out on the ground. He’s the international vice president and head of the processing and meatpacking division at United Food and Commercial Workers, the union that represents many meatpacking employees across the country.

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