While declaring there is plenty of meat in America, President Trump signed an executive order on Tuesday “to ensure that meat and poultry processors continue operations” during the coronavirus pandemic, overriding state officials worried about hot spots for the virus. Cattle and hog slaughter plunged this month due to coronavirus outbreaks that killed at least 20 workers and infected thousands of employees.
Trump directed meat processors to follow CDC “guidance” issued over the weekend to reduce the risk of exposure of workers to the virus. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who ordinarily oversees meat inspection but not meat plant labor, was named to implement the order. The USDA said it would assure meatpackers follow CDC guidelines and work with state and local officials to allow those plants to continue operating.
“Unfortunately, a number of America’s large meat processors and their workers have been affected by outbreaks of coronavirus,” said the White House. “In addition, recent actions in some states have led to the complete closure of large processing facilities. This (order) will further ensure that vitally important food processors are able to continue to operate safety and meet the consumer needs of the American people.”
At least 16 meat plants are currently closed, according to a tally by FERN.
The detailed CDC guidelines say workers should be stationed six feet apart, if possible, with barriers between them, if possible, and for workers to wear face masks. Employees have complained companies were slow to provide protective equipment; companies say they have followed federal guidelines will performing an essential duty.
Meat production has slowed so much that one hog industry leader, Gordon Spronk, estimated that pork plants are running at one-half capacity this week and up to 1.2 million hogs would have to be euthanized. “It is a crisis situation…very tough for many” farmers, said David Newman, president of the National Pork Board.
“Plant closures and slow-downs from COVID-19 have reached such levels that it will be impossible for consumers not to notice effects on meat prices or availability in the coming weeks,” said economist Jayson Lusk, Purdue University meat expert. Cattle slaughter is down by one-third and hog slaughter by 40 percent, according to USDA data. “Less meat being produced means less meat available for grocery stores to buy. As a result grocery stores and consumers are bidding up the price of the available supplies.”
“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 president Marc Perrone of the United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents 250,000 workers in the meat industry. “Simply put, we cannot have a secure food supply without the safety of these workers.” The UFCW said the government should require meatpackers to provide protective equipment, make daily tests available, enforce physical distancing at plants and provide full pay to sick workers.
Earlier in the day, Trump said he wanted to resolve “any liability problems” involving meat companies. “And we always work with the farmers. There’s plenty of supply.”
In addition to his remark about “plenty of supply,” Trump retweeted material from The Counter, a nonprofit news organization, that there is no meat shortage in the near term. “It might take stores longer than usual to restock certain products, due to supply chain disruptions. But we have many millions of pounds of meat in cold storage across the nation,” said The Counter.
It was unclear how quickly closed plants would resume operations or if employees would report for work. Some plants have slowed production because of worker absenteeism amid fears of infection. Among the closures is the Smithfield Foods pork plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Some 853 of its 3,700 employees are infected with the coronavirus, according to state officials. Smithfield closed the plant indefinitely two weeks ago at the request of state and local officials.
“The President’s shortsighted action could put more workers in harm’s way and continue to damage our food processing capacity,” said Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, senior Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee. “Last week, I called on the Trump administration to implement a proactive plan to protect workers and our food supply, and once again they have failed.”
A mammoth JBS pork plant in southern Minnesota will reopen on Wednesday, but only to euthanize market hogs that have no buyer, said House Agriculture chairman Collin Peterson. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz was scheduled to join Peterson for a news conference in Worthington, home to the JBS plant with a slaughter capacity of 20,000 hogs a day.
“They think they can do 13,000 a day with 10 people” to euthanize the hogs, said Peterson. Compared to estimates that the backlog of hogs on farms grows by 160,000 a day, “this 13,000 is not going to solve the problem,” he said. The euthanized hogs probably would be buried or sent to rendering plants.
More than 1 in 10 of Minnesota’s coronavirus cases was confirmed in Nobles County, which includes Worthington.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds has called for federal indemnities for euthanized hogs. The National Pork Producers Council said it will ask Congress for more aid for hog farmers. They are expected to share in $1.6 billion from a USDA coronavirus package. “It’s not nearly enough,” said Liz Wagstrom, NPPC chief veterinarian, during a National Pork Board webinar.
Bill Even, the pork board’s chief executive, said it is heartbreaking for farmers “having to destroy what you raised.”
The president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, Zippy Duvall, said he hoped the executive order “will protect the health and safety of workers while keeping farmers and ranchers in the business of providing food for families across America.” Like other farm leaders, Duvall said the pandemic “created an unprecedented crisis for American farmers.”
The text of the executive order is available here.