By Elizabeth Rembert and Mike Dorning
One of America’s food giants is taking to the media to defend its efforts to keep employees safe and supply food to the nation, in the face of criticism that workers at meat plants haven’t been adequately safeguarded against the coronavirus.
Smithfield Foods Inc. 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.
America’s meat and poultry plants have been one of the hardest-hit sectors in the Covid-19 pandemic. More than 16,200 meat plant workers had tested positive for the virus by the end of May and 86 had died, according to a report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that collected data from more than 20 states.
The Chinese-owned and Virginia-based company calls its 42,000 employees “heroes” in the ad, and says it has implemented measures to keep staff safe and reward them for their work.
Sunday’s spread echoes a national Tyson Foods Inc. commercial with the tagline “We take care of our family so you can feed yours.” In contrast to Tyson, Smithfield has declined to share recent data on coronavirus infections among employees at its plants.
Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Cory Booker of New Jersey last month released responses from major producers as part of an investigation into the spread of coronavirus at U.S. meat plants.
In its response, Smithfield was direct about why it wasn’t able to establish social distancing throughout its facilities.
“For better or worse, our plants are what they are,” Chief Executive Officer Ken Sullivan said. “Four walls, engineered design, efficient use of space, etc. Spread out? Okay. Where? To say it is a challenge is an understatement.”
Warren dismissed the advertising campaign as an attempt to distract from its refusal to provide crucial information on workplace safety.
Booker’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Danielle Rhoades Ha, vice president of communications at The New York Times, confirmed in an email that the paper published Smithfield’s ad on page A17 of Sunday’s national and New York editions.
“All told, we have ‘invested’ hundreds of millions of dollars in our COVID-19 response, including implementing aggressive measures to protect our employees’ health and safety during this pandemic,” Smithfield spokeswoman Keira Lombardo said in an email. “Any assertions otherwise are flat out wrong.”
The ad accuses others of trying to use Smithfield and its industry as “political pawns,” while the company has stayed apolitical to make hard decisions and confront challenges that are “rooted in responsibility and delivered with integrity.”
“We must produce food, and someone has to do it,” the Smithfield ad reads. “Certainly it is not the critics who have answered the bell. No, it is our nation’s food and agriculture workers who have done so.”