First reported by Bloomberg, US President Donald Trump used the Defense Production Act to ‘order’ meat plants to remain open.
According to a statement confirming the action, under the Executive Order and the authority of the Defense Production Act, "USDA will work with meat processing to affirm they will operate in accordance with the US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance, and then work with state and local officials to ensure that these plants are allowed to operate to produce the meat protein that Americans need".
"USDA will continue to work with the CDC, OSHA, FDA, and state and local officials to ensure that facilities implementing this guidance to keep employees safe can continue operating."
Earlier this week OSHA and the CDC released joint coronavirus-related interim guidance for meatpacking and meat processing workers and employers – including those involved in beef, pork and poultry operations. The guidance includes recommended actions employers can take to reduce the risk of exposure to the coronavirus.
This followed appeals from worker unions for meat processing plants to protect their staff better and provide more PPE as well as implement adequate social distancing in facilities.
The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union urged several measures for processors to introduce and, as of 28 April, reported that 22 US meat plants had closed at some point in the past two months, resulting in over 35,000 workers being impacted and a 25% reduction in pork slaughter capacity as well as a 10% reduction in beef slaughter capacity.
The UFCW also reported that 20 meatpacking and food processing workers have died due to the coronavirus.
Smithfield Foods in particular came under fire for measures at its Sioux Falls, South Dakota facility, prompting a detailed response.
Tyson Foods also took out an advertisement in The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette earlier this week highlighting the extent of the problem and warning that there will be limited supply of products available in grocery stores as well as emphasising that processors were attempting to strike a balance between maintaining supply and keeping staff safe.
BREAKING: Trump plans to order meat processing plants to STAY OPEN, declaring them critical infrastructure under Defense Production Act. Order meant to stave off shortage of beef, chicken, eggs, pork. Plant closures could have shut down as much as 80% of capacity, source says.— Jennifer Jacobs (@JenniferJJacobs) April 28, 2020
Trade bodies largely welcomed the action and urged worker safety.
"While there are currently no widespread shortages of beef, we are seeing supply chain disruptions because of plant closures and reductions in the processing speed at many, if not most, beef processing plants in the United States. We thank President Trump for his recognition of the problem and the action he has taken to begin correcting it,” said National Cattlemens Beef Association CEO Colin Woodall.
“We understand and appreciate the difficulties facing processing plant workers during this crisis," added Woodall. “Processing plant employees play a role that is critical to the security of this nation and America’s cattle producers offer their sincere gratitude for the work they are doing to keep food shortages from compounding the complex issues we’re facing.”
National Chicken Council president Mike Brown added: "We are grateful to President Trump for making this bold decision to protect our country’s food supply during these unprecedented times.
“The chicken industry’s main goal is to keep our essential workers safe and healthy.
“Our industry is following all CDC, USDA and OSHA guidelines, and many have consulted with infectious disease physicians to develop site plans.
"While doing everything we can to keep employees safe and healthy, the biggest challenge has been inconsistencies among the states and many localities in enforcing CDC guidelines in plants that add to confusion and can lead to unnecessary shutdowns. This patchwork approach is posing grave risk to the supply chain and threatening great disruption to NCC member companies. There must be a uniform approach across all states and we are hopeful that today’s announcement is a good first step in achieving that goal. NCC is urging states to immediately adopt CDC, OSHA and USDA guidelines for a uniform approach to first keep workers safe and keep Americans fed.”
The National Farmers Union applauded efforts to keep the supply chain moving but warned the order would absolve the companies from liability for illnesses or deaths among workers. "Such efforts should not occur at the expense of meat plant workers," said president Rob Larew. "These workers work in close quarters and often lack access to appropriate protective equipment or paid sick leave, making them among the most vulnerable to coronavirus. More than 4,000 have tested positive for the virus, and at least 19 have died. 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."
In response, PETA president Ingrid Newkirk said: "For the sake of human health and on behalf of the animals destined to be slaughtered and the migrant and other workers who are treated like scum in these slaughterhouses and whose families are more at risk than in almost any other job, PETA asks the nation to rise up and shout a resounding 'NO' to keeping slaughterhouses open. We stand ready and willing to help anyone who would like to make the transition to a vegan way of life."