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Smithfield Wins Dismissal of Meat Workers’ Virus Safety Suit

May 6, 2020, 12:11 AM

Smithfield Foods Inc. convinced a federal judge in Missouri to dismiss a lawsuit brought by meat packing plant workers who accused the company of failing to protect them from coronavirus.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has primary jurisdiction over the matter, Judge David Gregory Kays of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri ruled Tuesday. He added that “the regulatory environment in which meat-processing plants operate is constantly changing during this unique national emergency.”

Kays said he took seriously the workers’ concern “for their health and the health of their community in these unprecedented times.”

However, he said the court can’t ignore the authority of OSHA and the U.S. Agriculture Department over coronavirus safety guidance at meat-processing plants or “the significant steps Smithfield has taken to reduce the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak at the Plant.”

The Rural Community Workers Alliance, which represents the workers, sought an order to force the company to comply with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state public health officials, as well as other worker protection requirements.

Nearly eight plant workers in Milan, Mo., already have been forced to stay home because of Covid-19 symptoms.

“While we disagree that Smithfield has implemented sufficient changes to address workers’ concerns and protect their safety, any changes that have been implemented are the result of the courageous workers who came forward to demand better from the company,” David Muraskin, litigation director for the Public Justice Food Project and counsel for the workers, said in a May 5 statement.

“Their unprecedented stand for workplace safety has resonated across the entire meat packing industry,” Muraskin said.

A representative for Smithfield wasn’t immediately available for comment.

The lawsuit was filed April 24, and a day later the court noted that Smithfield was already under an OSHA investigation in which it had to submit safety-related documents to the agency. It also ordered the company to “follow all OSHA requirements and all guidance from CDC and other public authorities” until the court rules on an injunction.

Last week, Smithfield said in federal court that a recent presidential executive order keeping U.S. meat processors open during the pandemic supersedes a worker advocacy group’s efforts to enforce virus-related worker safety measures.

Trump’s April 28 executive order requires meat and poultry processing plants to remain open to prevent food shortages. More than a dozen plants, including Smithfield properties, had closed after hundreds of workers contracted Covid-19.

OSHA has opened inspections at several plants with Covid-19 outbreaks.

The case is Rural Cmty. Worker’s All. v. Smithfield Foods, Inc., W.D. Mo., No. 5:20-cv-06063, motion to dismiss granted 5/5/20.

To contact the reporter on this story: Fatima Hussein in Washington at fhussein@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jay-Anne B. Casuga at jcasuga@bloomberglaw.com; Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com

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