The Brazilian meat conglomerate that presided over an alleged “work while sick” culture at a plant in Colorado and deadly COVID-19 cluster at a facility in Nebraska during the early months of the pandemic will now be advising the federal government on health policies.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, an arm of President Donald Trump’s administration, announced last week that it had appointed Sherri Williams, a health overseer at JBS, to its National Advisory Committee on Meat and Poultry Inspection. This panel provides recommendations directly to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on oversight matters.
“Their expertise and advice play a key role in informing USDA’s food safety decisions to ensure the U.S continues to have one of the safest food systems in the world,” Undersecretary for Food Safety Dr. Mindy Brashears said in a release accompanying the announcement.
The appointment comes just months after JBS had to temporarily idle meat mills in Colorado, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania because of outbreaks of the novel coronavirus among their workers. The company also suffered severe rashes of the disease in its facilities in Utah and Texas, and its uniquely troubled history made the appointment a remarkable one during a still-raging pandemic.
At JBS’ Greeley, Colorado, plant in particular, local health officials reported discovering a “work while sick culture” that kept employees working the line even after they began to feel unwell. More than 300 of the plant’s workers tested positive for COVID-19 and at least eight meat handlers succumbed to the ailment. The outbreak was so severe it even grabbed the attention of the White House, which promised to deploy special assistance to the location—although the union representing workers there reported that aid has still not arrived.
JBS maintained at the time that it obligated the ill to remain home and had instituted testing and safety protocols to protect its labor force.
While JBS is hardly the only meat processor to witness horrific outbreaks amid the global pandemic, it has an unusually lurid history with hygiene and government oversight. Headquartered in São Paulo, JBS was one of more than two dozen companies caught up in a 2017 sting in the South American nation. Authorities in “Operation Weak Flesh” asserted they had caught the processors bribing inspectors, selling expired meat to schools and consumers, and treating their product with illegal fillers and carcinogenic chemicals.
JBS denied at the time it had committed any quality violations. However, the company’s executives and biggest shareholders, Joesley and Wesley Batista—whose family founded JBS—were simultaneously ensnared in an even larger corruption scandal, Operation Car Wash. The pair confessed to bribing nearly 2,000 Brazilian politicians.
The news of Williams’ appointment to the National Advisory Committee on Meat and Poultry Inspection provoked outrage from Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI), one of the company’s most vocal critics.
“The appointment of a JBS official to the USDA’s National Advisory Committee on Meat and Poultry Inspection is a slap in the face to farmers and ranchers across America,” Pocan said. “This corporation has no businesses dictating the safety of meat and poultry across America, this is Donald Trump’s corporate cronyism personified.”
The USDA did not reply to a request for comment. But in a statement to The Daily Beast, JBS defended its own record and Williams.
“As anyone who knows her will tell you, Ms. Williams is an accomplished expert and a credit to her family, the food safety profession and American agriculture,” said spokeswoman Nikki Richardson, who noted that the company’s American division had not been implicated in the Brazilian scandal. “JBS USA has not been accused of any wrongdoing regarding the events in Brazil in 2017.”
JBS had previously come under attack from politicians in both parties after the firm received $67 million in federal assistance intended to bolster farmers struggling amid the president’s trade war with China.
The firm was the only meat processor named to the committee last week. Most of the rest of the appointees hailed from universities, consumer groups, and trade organizations—with the only other private companies added to the roster being distributor U.S. Foods and Pride of the Pond, a small seafood company from Mississippi.
The sole meat processor already on the panel was Pilgrim’s Pride, of which JBS is a majority shareholder. JBS is thus also set to be the only entity to control two of the committee’s seats.