Facing nationwide food shortages, Trump will invoke Defense Production Act to keep meat plants open
President Donald Trump plans to order U.S. meat packing plants to remain open, setting up a showdown between the giant companies that produce America’s meat and the unions and activists who want to protect workers in a pandemic.
Using the Defense Production Act, Trump will order plants to stay open as part of the critical infrastructure needed to keep people fed amid growing supply disruptions from the coronavirus outbreak, a person familiar with the matter said. The government will provide additional protective gear for employees as well as guidance, according to the person.
The move would come just days after Tyson Foods Inc., the biggest U.S. meat processor, ran paid ads in national newspapers stating that the food supply chain was “broken.”
A handful of companies account for the majority of the nation’s meat, and as workers fell sick in March, plants initially continued to run. But pressure from local health officials and unions led to voluntary closures.
The Smithfield pork processing plants, some of Tyson’s chicken processing plants, and the beef processor JBS SA closed their plants last week after the unions reported 20 meat packers had died and over 5,000 workers in the industry tested positive for the Wuhan coronavirus.
The unions made claims the companies failed to provide workers adequate equipment to work during the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak. The meat processors dispute the numbers of sick workers as well as claiming many workers refused to wear the safety equipment.
Companies have been pressing to reopen while their unions have stated they will not work if adequate protection is not provided. The president himself has long stated his intent to get Americans working again, sooner than later.
Employee wears face masks at the JBS USA meat packing plant, where two members of the staff have died of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), as it remains operational in Greeley, Colorado, (Photo: Jim Urquhart/Reuters)
He has numerous times discussed his plan to restore an economy crippled by pockets of locked-down states and counties, arguing sensible social distancing measures can be used to restart the record-breaking economy.
Environmental Working Group, the agricultural equivalent of radical eco-groups like Greenpeace and PETA, called the order a potential death sentence. The United Food and Commercial Workers union said in a statement released to ACV Reports that if workers are not safe, the food supply will not be either.
Trump signaled the executive action at the White House on Tuesday, saying he planned to sign an order aimed at Tyson’s liability, which had become “a roadblock” for the company. He did not elaborate. The order, though, will not be limited to Tyson, an administration official said. It will affect many processing plants supplying beef, chicken, eggs and pork.
JBS’s local unit and Smithfield Foods Inc. did not immediately respond to calls and emails from ACV Reports, while Tyson and Cargill Inc. said they could not comment because they don’t have the executive order. Tyson did say safety remains its top priority “while we work to continue fulfilling our role of feeding families across the country.”
Illnesses in the meat-processing industry and shifts in demand after restaurants closed have disrupted the supply chain. Dairy farmers are dumping milk that cannot be sold to processors, broiler operations have been breaking eggs to reduce supplies and some fruit and vegetables are rotting in fields amid labor and distribution disruptions.
The Defense Production Act allows the government broad power to direct industrial production in crises. Trump has previously invoked the law in order to increase the supply of medical gear including ventilators, masks and swabs to test for coronavirus infection.
The White House has been discussing the order with meatpacking executives to determine what they need to operate safely and stay open, in order to prevent shortages, an administration official said. The CDC and OSHA Monday released guidelines that could keep the plants open.
White House General Counsel Pat Cipollone worked with private companies to design a federal mandate to keep the plants open and to provide them additional virus testing capacity as well as protective gear.