Missouri governor funnels $20 million in federal funds to his meat industry donors

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The money need not be used to protect workers from more COVID-19 outbreaks.

Missouri Republican Gov. Mike Parson recently announced $20 million in relief funds for the meat processing industry, after taking tens of thousands from them in campaign contributions.

Parson, a cow-calf operation owner, has long been a major recipient of contributions from the beef and pork industries. According to data from the National Institute on Money in Politics, this includes at least $22,250 from the Missouri Pork Association, more than $15,000 from the Missouri Cattlemen's Association, and another $8,500 from Smithfield Foods — a major pork producer — over the course of his political career.

As in many other states, meat processing facilities in Missouri have been hit hard in recent months by the COVID-19 pandemic. By early May, at least 490 workers at a Triumph Foods plant in St. Joseph had tested positive for the coronavirus. Dozens more at a Smithfield Food plant in Milan tested positive that month as well. Weeks later, hundreds of workers from Tyson's plant in Noel contracted the virus.

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Rather than shut down the meat processing facilities where the virus was spreading rapidly, Parson endorsed keeping them open.

"We've got to keep the food chain going," he told reporters on April 29. He backed Donald Trump's executive order compelling processing facilities to keep working during the pandemic as "critical infrastructure."

On May 5, Parson was asked by reporters what meatpacking workers who were afraid to return plants should do. He responded that that was between them and their employers, but that "I don't think you're going to be able to say 'I just don't feel comfortable going back to work' and you’re going to be able to stay at home.'"

On July 22, Parson announced that the state's Legislature had passed and he had approved $20 million in federal relief funds for meat and poultry establishments with 200 employees or fewer. While the money may be used to curb the spread of the coronavirus among workers, it may also be used for other expenses including expanding capacity and buying new storage equipment and cutting racks.

"As a farmer, I understand firsthand the challenging circumstances the COVID-19 pandemic has created within our agriculture community,” Parson said in a press release. "Agriculture is the state’s number one economic driver," he added.

These donations were first highlighted by American Bridge 21st Century.

A spokesperson for the Missouri Cattlemen's Association said that it did not lobby Parson on the funds: "Our association supports candidates who understand and value Missouri agriculture. He's a cattle farmer and farm and ranch families are blessed to have him as Governor."

A spokesperson for Parson said in an email, "Meat packing plant worker safety was first and foremost and we worked to get meat packing plants access to PPE and proactive testing."

To date, more than 52,000 people in Missouri have tested positive for the coronavirus. More than 1,200 of those have died.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.