Advocates slam Trump order to keep meatpacking plants open

Environmentalists, labor groups, and animal rights advocates on Tuesday condemned President Trump’s planned executive order to keep meatpacking plants open, despite reported outbreaks of Covid-19 at more than 60 of these plants across the country.

Advocates said the order under the U.S. Defense Production Act would further endanger meatpacking plant workers and their families. Nearly 20 meatpacking workers have died of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus since the pandemic began.

“While we share the concern over the food supply, today’s executive order to force meatpacking plants to stay open must put the safety of our country’s meatpacking workers first,” said Marc Perrone, international president of the Union of Food and Commercial Workers, which represents slaughterhouse workers. “Simply put, we cannot have a secure food supply without the safety of these workers.”

Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, said in a statement that the order was “tantamount to a death sentence. Rather than escalating this danger with reckless fiats, President Trump should be ensuring food and farm workers have adequate [personal protective equipment], plenty of space to work safely and free testing – not to mention paid sick leave and medical care if they do get sick.”

Trump’s announcement of the order came two days after Tyson Foods chairman John H. Tyson ran a two-page ad in several newspapers, including The New York Times, calling for federal assistance for meat companies whose plants have been operating at reduced capacity due to employee illness and absence. According to Successful Farming, as of April 27, 36 percent of the country’s pork capacity was idled, resulting in a backlog of hundreds of thousands of hogs.

Early reports on the executive order indicated that it would shield meat companies from potential liability. Reports also said that the government would provide additional protective equipment for workers. But further details on the order were not available by press time.

David Muraskin, director of litigation at the non-profit law firm Public Justice, said in a statement that “[w]orkers, their families and their communities are in grave danger” and that the order would “add insult to injury” by “attempting to shield those responsible for causing that danger in the first place.” The firm is currently helping to bring a worker safety lawsuit against the pork company Smithfield in Missouri.

According to an analysis by FERN, 85 meatpacking and food processing facilities have reported Covid-19 cases among workers since mid-March. The outbreaks have sickened over 4,300 workers and killed at least 19. The majority of those facilities have not closed at any point during the pandemic.

Five jurisdictions with the highest daily growth rate of Covid-19 cases are all home to or near meatpacking plants with active Covid-19 outbreaks: a Tyson beef plant near Sioux City, Iowa; a Tyson pork plant in Waterloo, Iowa; a JBS pork plant in Green Bay, Wisconsin; a Tyson chicken plant in Pine Bluff, Arkansas; and a JBS beef plant near Amarillo, Texas.

Closing plants when outbreaks begin is one way to curb the spread of the disease, advocates say. “It’s crucial the food industry protects workers by closing plants when necessary in order to keep the food system from collapsing entirely,” said Tony Corbo, senior government affairs representative at Food and Water Action in a statement. Corbo characterized the executive order as “deadly and foolish” and said it “will cause catastrophic harm.”

The dangerous situation at meatpacking plants has also concerned animal welfare groups, as plant closures have resulted in a backlog of animals who may need to be killed on the farm. As many as 700,000 pigs could be killed every week if closures continue, reported FERN’s Elizabeth Royte on Tuesday.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals released a statement asking the public to oppose the executive order “for the sake of human health and on behalf of the animals destined to be slaughtered.”