Judge dismisses Missouri lawsuit over meat worker safety

May 06, 2020 - 7:27 pm

O'FALLON, Mo. (AP) — A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed on behalf of employees at a rural Missouri meatpacking facility, ruling that oversight of how the plant adheres to guidance aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus falls to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, not the courts.

U.S. District Judge Greg Kays issued his 24-page ruling Tuesday in favor of Smithfield Foods. A lawsuit on behalf of workers at Smithfield's pork processing plant in Milan, Missouri, sought an injunction requiring the plant to abide by federal guidelines. The lawsuit accused Virginia-based Smithfield of not doing enough to protect workers from the coronavirus.

“Plaintiffs are naturally concerned for their health and the health of their community in these unprecedented times,” Kays wrote. “The Court takes their concern seriously. Nevertheless, the Court cannot ignore the USDA’s and OSHA’s authority over compliance ... or the significant steps Smithfield has taken to reduce the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak at the Plant.”

The Milan plant has not seen an outbreak of COVID-19. Just one case has been reported in Sullivan County, where the plant is located. But outbreaks have become common at other meat plants across the U.S., infecting thousands of workers, leading to the closure of some plants and prompting meat shortages. Several big grocery chains this week were restricting customer purchases of meat, and Wendy’s was unable to serve hamburgers at some locations.

President Donald Trump issued an executive order last week requiring meatpacking plants to stay open. The order was widely seen as giving processors protection from liability for workers who become sick on the job, and it came after the Missouri lawsuit against Smithfield Foods.

In Washington, Trump and Vice President Mike Pence met Wednesday in the Oval Office with Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds in a session that was upbeat about reopening meat plants quickly and safely.

“We think the story will be we’ll see more variety, and more meat cases fully supplied,” Perdue said. “I’d say probably a week to 10 days we’ll be fully back up.”

“We’re going to hopefully prevent what could have been a really sorry situation where we were euthanizing some of our protein supply and really impacting the food supply, not only across the country but throughout the world,” Reynolds said.

On the matter of safety, she said companies “know how important it is to take care of their workforce.”

Perdue said that since Trump’s order, the USDA has worked with OSHA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to ensure that meat plants are abiding by federal guidelines.

The attorney for the workers in Milan, David Muraskin, didn't rule out an appeal but said the lawsuit had demonstrated workers' power by prompting several changes at the plant, including better spacing of employees, additional cleaning and sanitizing, and an improved sick leave policy that means workers don’t feel obligated to come to work if they have symptoms of the coronavirus.

Smithfield said it was pleased the court dismissed what it called a “frivolous” lawsuit.

“Importantly, the Court recognized the ‘significant measures’ Smithfield is taking to protect the health and safety of its employees,” the company said in a statement.

Also Wednesday, Trump said he has asked the Justice Department to investigate allegations of potential market manipulation and possible price fixing by meatpackers during the pandemic. Attorneys general for 11 Midwestern states this week asked for a federal investigation, and some members of Congress had also asked about the issue.

Separately, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported Wednesday that more than 300 federal meatpacking inspectors are either sick from the coronavirus or in self-quarantine after exposure. Citing a USDA spokesman, the newspaper said through Tuesday, 197 inspectors had tested positive; the Food Safety and Inspection Service has about 8,000 employees. The agency said it continues to meet its responsibilities.

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Associated Press writers Michael Balsamo and Kevin Freking in Washington contributed to this report.

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