President Donald Trump has decided to compel meat processing plants to stay open, despite concerns these facilities might not be safe for employees during the pandemic.
Bloomberg reports that Trump is set to sign an executive order using the Defense Production Act to push shuttered meat processing plants into production. This will designate these facilities as critical infrastructure, and shield companies from law suits when they reopen.
Trump’s order came after large meat companies such as Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods and JBS USA shut down a number of processing facilities across the country in recent weeks due to COVID-19 outbreaks. Meat plants have become hot spots for virus transmission, as their employees work in close proximity, making physical distancing difficult.
Last week, Tyson announced it was closing down its largest pork processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa, after almost 200 of its workers tested positive for COVID-19.
The administration is reportedly working with the Department of Labor to determine which employees can stay home when plants reopen, but labor unions have called for more protections for the frontline meat workers who will have to operate these plants.
Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said plants wouldn’t have had to close if the Trump administration had developed more meaningful safety requirements early on in the crisis. “We only wish that this administration cared as much about the lives of working people as it does about meat, pork and poultry products,” he said in a statement. “When poultry plants shut down, it’s for deep cleaning and to save workers’ lives.”
As plants closed in recent weeks, a number of food company CEOs warned about disruptions in the meat supply chain if facilities remain closed. On Sunday, Tyson’s CEO, John Tyson, published a full-page ad in the New York Times warning that the “food supply chain is breaking.” In mid-April, Smithfield CEO, Kenneth Sullivan warned that the plant closures were “pushing our country perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply.”
Supply chain experts have said there isn’t a need to worry yet about short term meat shortages, as the USDA has a huge frozen stockpile, but prices could rise for certain products.