President Trump signs executive order to keep meat processing plants open during COVID-19

On 28 April, President Trump ordered meat processing plants to stay open to protect the US food supply despite concerns of coronavirus outbreaks.
calendar icon 29 April 2020
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According to Reuters and statements from workers and industry groups, the order has caused backlash and calls for at-risk workers to receive more protection.

As concerns about food shortages and supply chain disruptions become more pronounced, Trump issued an executive order using the Defense Production Act, mandating that meat processing plants continue operations. The order, which designates such facilities as “critical infrastructure”, is expected to absolve companies who own them from liability for illnesses or deaths among workers.

The world's biggest meat companies, including Smithfield Foods Inc, Cargill Inc, JBS USA and Tyson, have halted operations at nearly 20 slaughterhouses and processing plants in North America as workers fall ill, stoking global fears of a meat shortage.

The order is designed in part to give companies legal cover with more liability protection in case employees catch the virus as a result of having to go to work.

John H Tyson, chairman of Tyson Foods, said on Sunday that the food supply chain was "breaking" and warned of the potential for meat shortages.

Before issuing the executive order, Trump told reporters in the Oval Office that signing the order, "... will solve any liability problems," adding, "And we always work with the farmers. There's plenty of supply."

The executive order, released Tuesday evening, said the closure of just one large beef-processing plant could result in 10 million fewer individual servings of beef in a day.

"Such closures threaten the continued functioning of the national meat and poultry supply chain, undermining critical infrastructure during the national emergency," the order said.

A senior administration official told Reuters that the government would provide guidance to minimise risks to workers who are particularly vulnerable to the virus, such as encouraging those with chronic health issues and older workers to remain at home.

Unions did not favour the measure. Some farmers reported that the step came to late as livestock had already been euthanised instead of going to market.

“While we share the concern over the food supply, today’s executive order to force meatpacking plants to stay open must put the safety of our country’s meatpacking workers first," the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union said in a statement.

UFCW, the largest US meat-packing union, demanded that the administration compel meat companies to provide "the highest level of protective equipment" to slaughterhouse workers and ensure daily coronavirus testing.

Speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, the senior administration official said that if the order was not issued, a majority of processing plants could face shutdowns, reducing capacity by as much as 80 percent.

The White House worked directly with executives from the meat-processing companies to determine what they needed to stay open safely, the administration official said. He said there were enough workers who could safely go to work and ensure the supply chain continued to churn.

More than 6,500 meat- and food-processing workers have been infected with or exposed to the new coronavirus, and 20 have died, the UFCW said on Tuesday.

Administration officials and some Republicans on Capitol Hill have said that businesses that are reopening need liability protection from lawsuits employees might file if they become sick.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, speaking to reporters on a teleconference on Tuesday, was asked about Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell's pushing for business liability protections as they reopen their operations.

"Is he saying if an owner tells a worker he needs to work next to a sick person without a mask and wouldn't be liable? That makes no sense," Schumer said.

In response to the order, National Farmers Union President Rob Larew issued a statement outlining his concerns around the integrity of the US food system but stressed that the health and well-being of meat plant employees should not be overlooked.

“Meat processing facilities are critical for farmers’ livelihoods and national food security…We are immensely worried about the financial implications for rural communities and the nutritional and economic implications for American consumers, and we sincerely appreciate efforts to address those issues.

“That being said, such efforts should not occur at the expense of meat plant workers…Their health and lives are not an acceptable tradeoff for our meat supply, nor are these things mutually exclusive – we must find solutions that protect both,” Larew said.

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