Packing plant reopenings will begin ‘maybe by the end of this week,’ says Perdue

Two days after President Trump ordered meat plants to operate during the pandemic, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said that some plants shuttered by coronavirus outbreaks will reopen “maybe by the end of this week, over the weekend.” The labor union representing 250,000 meat workers asked state governors to set stronger safety standards, such as requiring six feet of separation between workers and the use of N-95 masks on the production floor, than those proposed by the CDC.

“I think we’ve had some rolling outages” because pork and beef production plunged during April as plants slowed or stopped operations due to the virus, Perdue said Thursday on Fox News. “We may have, you know, kind of saved the situation here with the (executive order) that gives the companies better coverage” against liability claims. At the White House, Trump said, “We solved that problem,” and brushed aside a question about whether there might be meat shortages: “Not even a little bit.”

Trump’s order directs meat and poultry processors to follow CDC guidance on coronavirus protection. The guidance says workers should be stationed six feet apart, if possible, with barriers between them, if possible, and that workers should wear face masks. Employees have complained that companies have been slow to provide protective equipment; companies say they have followed federal guidelines while performing an essential duty.

At least 25 workers at meatpacking and food processing plants have died, and 5,396 employees are confirmed ill from the coronavirus, according to data compiled by FERN as of Thursday at noon. At that point, at least 98 meatpacking and processed food plants had confirmed cases of Covid-19, and at least 19 plants were closed.

“Let me be clear. The best way to protect America’s food supply, to keep these plants open, is to protect America’s meatpacking workers,” said Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union. In a letter to governors, the UFCW called for protection beyond the CDC guidance. Physical distancing should be mandatory, it said. “Barriers, such as plexiglass barriers, should be used only to reinforce the six-feet distancing, not as a substitute. … This kind of distancing may require the speed of the line to be reduced.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Ro Khanna of California called on Congress to enact an “essential workers bill of rights” in hopes of protecting farmworkers from a wave of coronavirus infections. “I am confident some of the provisions will make it” into the next coronavirus relief bill, said Khanna during a videoconference. The advocacy group Farmworker Justice said workers have complained that their employers do not follow the CDC guidelines. Khanna and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts are the lead sponsors of the workers bill of rights.

“The good news today, I think we’re having these plants preparing to open in days, not weeks, some maybe by the end of this week, over the weekend, and others in the early next week,” said Perdue. “We’re working with each of those plants to see they are complying with the CDC guidance as well as OSHA to keep our workers safe. Obviously, it is important to keep them safe and healthy to keep the food supply chain healthy.”

Perdue did not say which or how many plants would reopen in the next two or three days. The USDA reiterated that it will review mitigation plans submitted by meat companies and work with state and local officials “to resume and/or ensure continuity of operations at these critical facilities.”

“Additionally, USDA is working with FEMA and the Supply Chain Stabilization Taskforce to identify PPE [personal protective equipment] needs in the food supply chain and ensure supplies get to entities who need them to continue operations,” said an agency spokesperson.

Smithfield Foods said it would resume operations at a hog slaughter plant in Monmouth, in west-central Illinois, on Saturday, reported the Review Atlas newspaper. The Monmouth plant can slaughter 11,000 hogs a day, or 2 percent of U.S. capacity. Warren County, which includes Monmouth, has one of the highest per capita rates in Illinois for confirmed coronavirus cases, said the Review Atlas.

Two workers at a Tyson Foods plant in Joslin, Illinois, about 60 miles northeast of Monmouth, have died, and the beef processing plant has been linked to 92 cases of Covid-19, according to the Rock Island County Health Department, reported KWQC-TV. Following Trump’s order for plants to operate, “our best efforts are to try to reinforce all the mitigation efforts that they’re doing, continue educating all the workers,” said health department administrator Nita Ludwig.

“Counties that have meatpacking plants or prisons are major hot spots for new coronavirus infections in rural America,” said the Daily Yonder. “We found that more than a third of the new coronavirus cases emerging in rural America in the last week originated in counties where manufacturing is the predominant economic driver. Meatpacking is a food manufacturing process, so counties with large amounts of pork, chicken, and beef processing show up in the manufacturing category.”

In some counties with meat plants, the per capita infection rate is multiple times higher than the U.S. average, said the Daily Yonder.

Although Trump said that the executive order resolved liability issues for meat companies, “lawyers say the meat producers being forced to reopen … could face a range of legal challenges if workers get sick or if they’re unable to honor contracts with suppliers and customers,” said the news site Axios.

FERN’s interactive map of food plants and coronavirus outbreaks is available here.