Trump Moves to Keep Meat Plants Open Despite Infections

The president is using the Defense Production Act to bolster the food supply chain after several meat plants closed because of workers contracting Covid-19.

Workers wear protective masks and stand between plastic dividers at a Tyson Foods plant in Camilla, Georgia. (Tyson Foods via AP)

WASHINGTON (CN) – President Donald Trump Tuesday signed an executive order to keep all meat production facilities open even as the novel coronavirus has ravaged plant workers across the United States.

Using the Defense Production Act, the president ordered meat and poultry producers to continue operations while following guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“It is important that processors of beef, pork, and poultry … in the food supply chain continue operating and fulfilling orders to ensure a continued supply of protein for Americans,” the order states.

Trump announced his plan to sign the order during a meeting with Florida Governor Rick DeSantis at the White House on Tuesday.

The announcement was just 48 hours removed from a startling warning on the nation’s supply chain from John Tyson of Tyson Foods.

In an ad published Sunday in the New York Times and Washington Post, Tyson said the “food supply chain is breaking” under the weight of Covid-19’s impact and that significant livestock waste was assured at farms where there was simply too much supply and too little demand.

“Farmers across the nation simply will not have anywhere to sell their livestock to be processed, when they could have fed the nation. Millions of animals – chickens, pigs and cattle – will be depopulated because of the closure of our processing facilities,” Tyson said.

Tyson’s factories in Washington, Indiana and Iowa have shuttered in recent weeks due to the spread of infections among workers. The Associated Press reported Monday that four employees at a rural Tyson Foods facility in Georgia died this month after contracting Covid-19.

Other meat producers like Smithfield Foods – the world’s largest – shuttered factories in recent days including its plant in Monmouth, Illinois, which is responsible for producing about 3% of the nation’s pork products.

But on Tuesday, Trump said concerns over the nation’s meat supply are overblown.

“There’s plenty of supply,” the president said from the Oval Office, but added that suppliers had hit a “road block.”

In his executive order, Trump said that actions in some states leading to the complete closure of some large processing facilities, “may be inconsistent” with guidance recently issued by the CDC and OSHA.

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

The order adds that “unnecessary closures” of such facilities have a swift and large effect on the food supply chain.

“For example, closure of a single large beef processing facility can result in the loss of over 10 million individuals servings of beef in a single day,” the order states.

Smithfield’s plant closures came after it was hit with a lawsuit filed by the Rural Community Workers Alliance alleging unsafe conditions, including “forcing workers to work shoulder to shoulder and scheduling their worktime and breaks in a manner that forces workers to be crowded into cramped hallways and restrooms.”

The group also alleged Smithfield failed to provide personal protective equipment, discouraged sick leave even if an employee cited illness and broadly failed to develop or implement a plan to test vulnerable employees.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union reported this month that roughly 6,5000 of its members have taken time off work because they were ill or became infected with Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus. The outbreak has so far infected just over 1 million people in the U.S. and killed at least 57,000, according to a Johns Hopkins University tracker.

The union reports at least 20 of its members have died since the outbreak began.

Marc Perrone, president of the union’s international chapter, called on Tyson and other meatpacking companies to join in the quest to have federal and state officials designate meatpacking employees as essential frontline workers and first responders.

“Temporary first responder status ensures these workers have priority access to the Covid-19 testing and protective equipment they need to continue doing these essential jobs,” Perrone said. “Our federal leaders must enforce clear guidelines to ensure every employer lives up to the high safety standards these workers deserve and the American people expect.”

The union also asked Vice President Mike Pence five days ago to pick up the pace on safety precautions for those providing much of the nation’s breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Demanding prioritization for worker testing and protective equipment and a halt to line speed waivers at facilities to allow for social distancing, Perrone emphasized that his request “had nothing to do with politics” or even whether workers were union or non-union.

“For the UFCW, this is about the life and death of essential workers and the need to protect them and America’s food supply,” he said.

Jessica Martinez, co-executive director for the National Council for Occupational Safety and Healthy, slammed the forthcoming executive order as incomplete at best.

“Essential workplaces should never be required to stay open unless they are safe, for the sake of workers on site and to prevent the spread of a deadly disease to co-workers, families and the public at large,” she said in a statement. “To keep their doors open safely, meatpacking plants – and all essential workplaces – must operate under OSHA standards, not voluntary ‘guidance.’ Safe operations must include a comprehensive assessment and control plan developed with strong input from workers and their union.”

According to a database kept by the council tracking recorded deaths among essential workers, five meat processing workers and six poultry processing workers have died after exposure to the virus.

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