Although beef and pork slaughter plants ran at less than three-fourths capacity last week, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue says, “We think most of our facilities will be back on line” by the end of this week. That would account for as much as 85 percent of U.S. meat-processing capacity. Fourteen beef, pork and poultry plants resumed operation last week, according to the USDA. Other tallies showed a handful of plants still shut down.
Coronavirus outbreaks forced meat plants to slow or halt production during April. In the final week of the month, U.S. red meat product was two-thirds of normal. In recent days, food retailers such as Kroger and Costco have limited customers to two or three packages of meat per trip to the store. President Trump signed an executive order on April 28 directing meat plants to operate during the pandemic.
“Today’s rush by the Trump administration to re-open 14 meatpacking plants without the urgent safety improvements needed is a reckless move that will put American lives at risk and further endanger the long-term security of our nation’s food supply,” said Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents 250,000 workers in the industry. The union called for daily testing of workers, giving the employees “the highest level of protective equipment” and enforcement of physical distancing between workers.
“The administration has failed to take the urgent action needed to enact clear and enforceable safety standards at these meatpacking plants,” said Perrone.
At least 51 meat industry workers have died and more than 13,000 employees have tested positive for Covid-19, according to data compiled by FERN. At least eight meatpacking and five processing plants were closed as of May 8 at midday. An interactive map by the National Pork Board indicated three hog plants were closed and two dozen others were running at reduced volumes.
“Obviously, some of them will still have slower production lines,” said Perdue during a Brownfield Ag News interview aired on Thursday. “We believe we are trending upward” in meat production. He repeated a prediction he made a day earlier to President Trump, that in a week to 10 days, meat production would be back to normal.
Trump’s executive order told plants to follow the latest guidance from the CDC and the Labor Department for coronavirus safety. The guidelines say workers should be spaced 6 feet apart, if possible, with barriers between them, if possible, and that face masks are recommended, particularly if social distancing is not possible based on working conditions.
“Anyone can have other opinions. These [CDC and Labor Department guidelines] are the gold standard without our country,” responded Perdue when asked by Brownfield about complaints that meat companies were doing too little to protect workers.
Beef and pork plants operated at roughly 73 percent of U.S. capacity last week, according to USDA estimates. A week earlier, it was 65 percent of capacity. “All the efforts to get plants back on line appear to be having some effect,” said Jayson Lusk, a Purdue University professor who studies the meat industry.
In a letter to Trump, 15 Midwestern lawmakers asked for the government to reimburse farmers for the cost of killing and disposing of livestock that they were unable to market because of coronavirus shutdowns. They said Covid-19 losses should be treated like a natural disaster that destroyed flocks and herds.
“Even as plants begin to reopen, meat and poultry plants are expected to operate below maximum capacity for the foreseeable future in order to maintain appropriate public health and worker safety precautions meaning that, unfortunately, depopulation will continue,” said the letter, led by House Agriculture chairman Collin Peterson. The letter cited an estimate that farmers were killing 10,000 hogs in Minnesota each week.
As the meat industry rebuilds volume, “thousands of U.S. meatpacking workers are still not being tested for the coronavirus,” said the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “The only guidance from the federal government has been that meat processors should “consider” tests. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue wrote a letter to governors last week urging that meat plants remain open, but he didn’t mention testing workers.”