UPDATE: April 29, 2020: President Donald Trump signed the executive order to keep plants open on Tuesday night. The order said "closures threaten the continued functioning of the national meat and poultry supply chain, undermining critical infrastructure during the national emergency."
- As closures rise and supply concerns grow, President Donald Trump is expected to order meat-processing plants to stay open, Bloomberg reported. Trump signaled the executive action to reporters at the White House on Tuesday.
- Trump said the order was expected to help Tyson Foods' liability as it was becoming "a road block" for the meat giant, according to Bloomberg. But the order will impact many processing plants including beef, chicken, eggs and pork.
- Trump is reportedly planning to use the Defense Production Act to order companies to stay open as critical infrastructure, with the government providing protective gear and guidance. In a crisis, the Defense Production Act enables the federal government to direct industrial production.
Thousands of meatpacking workers have tested positive for coronavirus and some have even died in the last few months as plants have fought to stay open against criticism from workers and unions. Despite escalating pushback about plant and worker conditions, Trump is now ordering those facilities to stay open.
Many of the largest meat companies in the U.S., including JBS, Tyson and Smithfield Foods, have shut down facilities as they have become coronavirus hot spots. At least 24 meat processing plants across the country have closed temporarily or indefinitely as a result. A Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota was the center of one of the top COVID-19 hot spots in the country with nearly 1,000 coronavirus cases and two deaths linked to the factory before it shut down.
Those closures have pushed executives from some of the largest meat companies to issue stark warnings about potential meat shortages in the last week. John Tyson, Tyson chairman, recently wrote in a widely published ad that "the food supply chain is breaking." While Kenneth Sullivan, CEO of Smithfield, said that closing plants "is pushing our country perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply." The White House reportedly chose to sign this order after predictions showed that as much as 80% of U.S. meat production capacity could shut down.
"The White House's plan would effectively force workers back into buildings that have become viral incubators, while waiving liability for the meat companies. In other words, this action provides a financial boost for corporate executives at the expense of workers’ lives. The government’s first priority right now should be to protect the health of American workers and consumers, not line the pockets of Big Meat," Neal Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, said in a statement.
This news may not come as a surprise to industry since Trump’s order echoes previous statements from the executive branch. Shortly after a wave of meat production facility closures earlier this month, Vice President Mike Pence told food workers in the U.S. to "show up and do your job."
The order will likely continue to escalate the growing tensions between the largest meat companies in the U.S., labor unions, and local government and health officials who have called on companies to shut down plants to stop the virus from spreading any further.
Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, told Food Dive in an emailed statement that if the administration had developed meaningful safety requirements early on, this would not even have become an issue.
"Employers and government must do better," Appelbaum said. "We only wish that this administration cared as much about the lives of working people as it does about meat, pork and poultry products."
Trump also said the order should help with liability, which is expected to increasingly strain these companies. Some workers already filed a federal lawsuit against a Smithfield plant in Missouri for not changing its safety precautions as the pandemic hit. A federal judge recently ordered Smithfield to comply with public health guidelines at the plant.
This Smithfield suit will likely not be the last as workers, who typically stand shoulder-to-shoulder packing meat in these facilities across the country, have criticized companies for moving too slow to implement safety measures and not closing plants as thousands of positive cases popped up. Now at least 20 people have died of coronavirus linked to these plants. But Trump's executive order could stop legal complaints from coming down the pike since it orders processing plants to stay open regardless of safety concerns, pushing the blame onto government and off of Big Food.