WASHINGTON — Amid concerns that meatpacking plants are highly susceptible to spreading the coronavirus, but that the nation’s food supply is at risk when the plants temporarily close, President Donald Trump took executive action Tuesday to order them to stay open.
His order invokes the Defense Production Act to classify meat processing as critical infrastructure to try to prevent a shortage of chicken, pork and other meat on supermarket shelves.
Unions fired back, saying the White House was jeopardizing lives and prioritizing cold cuts over workers’ health.
More than 20 meatpacking plants have closed temporarily under pressure from local authorities and their own workers, who are often immigrants, including two of the nation’s largest — a Tyson Fresh Meats plant in Waterloo and a Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, S.D.
A smaller Tyson Fresh Meats pork plant in Columbus Junction was closed more than a week after scores of workers there tested positive for the disease — and two died from it, the company announced.
“Such closures threaten the continued functioning of the national meat and poultry supply chain, undermining critical infrastructure during the national emergency,” Trump’s order states.
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents 1.3 million food and retail workers, said Tuesday that 20 food-processing and meatpacking union workers in the United States have died of the virus. An estimated 6,500 are sick or have been exposed while working near someone who tested positive, the union says.
As a result, industry leaders warn that consumers could see meat shortages in just days.
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Tyson, one of the world’s largest food companies, ran a full-page ad in several newspapers warning “the food supply chain is breaking.”
Tyson suspended operations at its Waterloo plant after a slew of infections there. The company has declined requests to say how many workers are infected.
Black Hawk County, where the plant is located, reported 941 COVID-19 cases and 12 deaths, according to state data as of Tuesday. A mall in Waterloo is scheduled be the site today of ramped-up statewide testing efforts.
Smithfield Foods halted production at its plant in Sioux Falls after an outbreak infected 853 workers there.
The 15 largest pork-packing plants account for 60 percent of all pork processed in the United States, and the country has already seen a 25 percent reduction in pork slaughter capacity, according to UFCW.
A senior White House official said the administration was trying to prevent a situation in which a “vast majority” of the nation’s meat processing plants might have temporarily closed operations, reducing the availability of meat in supermarkets by as much as 80 percent.
The official said the White House was also working with the Labor Department to provide enhanced safety guidance for meatpacking workers. That will include trying to minimize the risk to workers who may be most prone to serious complications from the virus, including strongly recommending those over 65 and with preexisting health conditions stay home.
The order, which was developed in consultation with industry leaders including Tyson and Smithfield, is designed, in part, to provide companies with additional liability protections in case workers get sick.
Trump said Tuesday the order would address what he described as a “legal roadblock.”
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The administration is working with the companies to help them secure protective equipment, like face shields and masks, and ramp up testing, the official said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration have issued extensive guidelines on steps companies and workers should take.
Protecting workers can be especially challenging at plants that typically employ thousands of people who often work side-by-side carving meat, making social distancing all but impossible. Some companies have been working to reduce infections by checking workers’ temperatures, staggering breaks and altering start times. Owners said they have also done more to clean plants and added plastic shields between workstations.
In South Dakota, Republican Gov. Kristi Noem has said she hopes to see a reopening plan for Smithfield this week, but sidestepped questions Tuesday about whether she agreed with Trump’s order, which might have prevented the Sioux Falls plant from shutting down if it had been in place earlier.
“We need to keep (plants) running, but we also need to protect people,” Noem said.
In Iowa, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds said in response to a question at her daily news conference Tuesday morning that she hoped Trump would sign the order.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Abby Finkenauer, from the 1st District that includes Cedar Rapids, said the White House needs to follow through on worker protections.
She said in a statement that Trump’s order “must be accompanied by stringent, enforceable worker-safety protections, widespread rapid testing and adequate personal protective equipment. We owe it to the essential employees who are literally putting their lives on the line to keep food on our tables.”
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