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Judge dismisses lawsuit over worker safety at Smithfield pork plant

The judge noted that since the president issued an executive order on meatpacking plants, it's up to the executive branch to monitor safety, not the courts.
Image: Smithfield Foods is one of the five processing plants involved in the pilot program.
An employee handles sides of pork at a Smithfield Foods Inc. processing facility in Milan, Mo., in 2017. Daniel Acker / Bloomberg via Getty Images

A federal judge has dismissed a worker advocacy group's lawsuit accusing Smithfield Foods Inc, the world's largest pork processor, of failing to adequately protect employees from the novel coronavirus at a plant in Missouri.

Smithfield is already taking many of the steps called for by the Rural Community Workers Alliance, including screening production-line workers for symptoms and installing barriers between them, District Judge Greg Kays in Kansas City, Missouri, said in his ruling on Tuesday.

Kays also said that under President Donald Trump's executive order in April requiring meatpacking plants to remain open during the pandemic, the federal government, and not the courts, were responsible for overseeing working conditions.

Virginia-based Smithfield, which is owned by China's WH Group Ltd, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

David Muraskin, a lawyer for the advocacy group, on Wednesday said the decision was disappointing but that the lawsuit had spurred Smithfield to make changes in response to workers' concerns.

"We wish that Smithfield would do more, but the decision shows that workers can organize and move companies to make changes, and that's a really important development," Muraskin said.

In the lawsuit filed last month, the RCWA accused Smithfield of creating a "public nuisance" by failing to protect workers at the Milan, Missouri, plant and endangering the surrounding community.

Smithfield responded that it had implemented protections recommended by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and other agencies.

The company said the lawsuit should be dismissed because OSHA is already conducting an investigation of the Milan plant, and government agencies are continually changing their guidance for the industry.

Kays agreed in his decision on Tuesday.

"Under these circumstances, where the guidelines are rapidly evolving, maintaining a uniform source for guidance and enforcement is crucial," the judge wrote.

Smithfield has closed other pork-processing plants in Missouri, Wisconsin and South Dakota after outbreaks of coronavirus cases among workers. Companies like Tyson Foods Inc, Cargill Inc and National Beef Packing Co have also shut U.S. meat plants during the pandemic.

Last week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that about 4,200 workers at meat and poultry plants had contracted the novel coronavirus, and 20 had died.