Vice President Mike Pence’s Friday afternoon forum about the nation’s food supply featured the CEOs of two of the nation’s major meat packers, allegations of price fixing in the industry from other panelists and the revelation that another packing plant worker has died of COVID-19.
Smithfield CEO Ken Sullivan was near the end of the list of speakers.
“I’d like to use the time I’ve got to thank our employees,” Sullivan said, “who are heroes.”
Sullivan said he spent Friday morning visiting one of his company’s plants and just before the forum with the vice president started, he’d been notified one of Smithfield’s employees had died.
“Our employees have been showing up day after day, in close quarters. They’ve been harvesting animals. They’ve been keeping the food supply in this country and they’re doing it in a selfless way and I think they deserve a lot of recognition for that,” Sullivan said. “It’s gut wrenching for us as companies to have the choice between maintaining the food supply in this country and asking our employees to go into plants to do that.”
Pence, who had whispered an affirmation during Sullivan’s remarks, led the crowd in applause after Sullivan stopped speaking.
“These employees really deserve a lot of gratitude,” Sullivan said, finishing with: “That’s all.”
Pence responded: “Ken, I’m sorry for your loss. I hope you convey our deepest sympathies to the family of that employee, but I appreciate the strength of emotion in your voice and the American people are grateful.”
Pence then began punctuating his remarks by thumping the table with his hand. “They’re grateful for the people that have been coming to work every day in our meat processing plants throughout this epidemic. They’ve absolutely been essential.”
Pence convened the event at HyVee headquarters in West Des Moines by praising grocery stores, truckers and meat packers. Pence said processors of beef, pork and poultry had faced coronavirus challenges, but 14 previously closed plants were resuming operations.
“How about a big round of applause for all these great meat processing plants that have stepped up and partnered with us to keep our food supply strong?” Pence asked and the panel on stage, along with a crowd of about 70 Hy-Vee employees, joined Pence to applaud.
Tyson Fresh Meats CEO thanked Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, who was also on the panel.
“The safety of our team members are paramount to us,” White said, “and without your involvement providing the tests, supported by the federal government, the PPE that you’ve been able to provide has been paramount to us enabling to get back to work.”
At least 730 employees at Tyson’s plant in Perry tested positive for COVID-19. Black Hawk County Public Health officials say more than 1000 employees at Tyson’s Waterloo plant tested positive for the virus. Both plants are back in operation.
Both of Iowa’s U.S. Senators and a national Farm Bureau leader were part of Friday’s panel and all three raised the issue of price fixing in the beef industry. Senator Chuck Grassley bluntly said farmers want an explanation from meat packers.
“How come we’re losing hundreds of dollars on our cattle and the price (for) consumers are going up?” Grassley asked.
Zippy Duvall, the American Farm Bureau’s C-E-O, said farmers are frustrated by the “rock bottom” prices for live cattle and the “sky high” wholesale prices for beef carcasses.
“The farmers and ranchers are coming unhinged when they see that difference in that price because they’re facing losing their farms,” he said, “and it is a very difficult thing to explain.”
President Trump this week said he’s asked the Department of Justice to investigate allegations of market manipulation by Tyson, Smithfield, JBS and Cargill. The four companies account for about 80 percent of the beef market.