- Stampede Meat is suing New Mexico to fight a public health order that requires the company to close its Sunland Park, New Mexico processing plant for two weeks because of an outbreak, according to court documents filed in the U.S. District Court of New Mexico.
- New Mexico's Public Health Order says the state can close businesses for 14 days if four or more employees test positive for the coronavirus. On Nov. 3, the state's Department of Health sent a letter to the company ordering it to temporarily close the plant after at least half a dozen workers tested positive over a five-day period.
- The meat company argued in the filing it shouldn't be forced to close because an executive order issued by President Donald Trump in April allows meat processing plants to stay open. "The new Stampede closure order puts Stampede Meat in the potential dilemma of having to determine whether it will comply with defendants' state-issued directive, or whether it should comply with the plain meaning (and superior) order from the president of the United States to comply with federal regulations and stay open, providing critical resources for the nation's food supply," Stampede Meat said in the lawsuit.
When President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act and signed the executive order to keep meat plants open and help prevent shortages in April, many criticized the move and cautioned that it could allow plants to keep their doors open even as outbreaks spread among workers. This case brings the two priorities of food supply and worker safety to a head.
Stampede Meat is an Illinois-based manufacturer that sells beef, pork and chicken to retailers and restaurants, including Costco, Walmart and Denny's. In the filing, Stampede Meat said that closing the plant for two weeks would cause "irreparable harm" and "millions of pounds of meat would need to be destroyed."
In the early months of the pandemic, meat plants quickly became hot spots for the coronavirus and many criticized the industry's response for waiting too long to implement safety precautions and close plants. After a growing number of plants temporarily shuttered to deep clean facilities and implement safety precautions, executives at Tyson Foods and Smithfield Foods warned of potential shortages, which then prompted Trump to sign the executive order.
Stampede Meat said in the suit that in May, Costco and Walmart, who are both Stampede Meat customers, and other grocery stores rationed meat and poultry after processors temporarily shutdown.
"Allowing the Department of Health to ignore the President’s Executive Order and close Stampede Meat and other meat and poultry processing companies will lead to similar food shortages and rationing," the suit said. "Moreover, Stampede Meat’s loss of business will force it to reduce its workforce and reduce employment opportunities for the surrounding community."
NBC News reported that more than 500 employees work at Stampede Meat's Sunland Park plant and the health department said more than 100 of those workers have tested positive since the start of the pandemic. But Stampede Meat said in the suit it is following federal guidelines and has a COVID-19 response team that holds weekly meetings. The company said it has implemented precautions like conducting daily screening and temperature checks, requiring employees to wear facial protection, sanitizing high touchpoint areas every 30 minutes and increasing social distancing.
Despite increased precautions at plants across the country, the coronavirus has continued to spread. According to the Food and Environment Reporting Network, more than 48,000 meatpacking employees have tested positive for the coronavirus and at least 245 have died.
Now it is up to the court to decide if the order to temporarily close the plant violates Trump's executive order. The state health department wrote in its letter that failure to comply with the order could result in "substantial monetary penalties." Stampede Meat asked the court issue a temporary restraining order to prevent New Mexico from closing the plant and issuing fines.