President Donald Trump announced Tuesday that he will use the Defense Production Act to declare meat processing plants as essential infrastructure, forcing them to stay open during the COVID-19 pandemic. He confirmed the action during a press conference Tuesday afternoon featuring small business owners and signed the executive order later Tuesday afternoon.
The order is expected to require critical food supply businesses to stay open under the Defense Production Act and provides liability protections for employers if workers get sick. The action comes just days after theCenters for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of the Department of Health and Human Services and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) of the Department of Labor put out guidance for plants to implement to help ensure employee safety to reopen plants or to continue to operate those still open.
Under the Executive Order and the authority of the Defense Production Act, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will work with meat processing to affirm they will operate in accordance with the CDC and OSHA guidance, and then work with state and local officials to ensure that these plants are allowed to operate to produce the meat protein that Americans need. USDA will continue to work with the CDC, OSHA, FDA, and state and local officials to ensure that facilities implementing this guidance to keep employees safe can continue operating.
Trump mentioned the order during a meeting Tuesday morning with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, saying his Administration was working with Tyson Foods, the nation’s largest meat processor. During his afternoon press conference, Trump said the meat packing and transportation industries had expressed concerns on difficulty where liability that is “unfair to them.”
United Food & Commercial Workers Union, the largest private-sector union, reported that across the country, at least 6,500 meat processing employees have been affected by the virus, meaning they either tested positive for the disease or had to go into self-quarantine. Twenty workers have died, according to a Bloomberg report.
Total U.S. meat supplies in cold storage facilities are equal to roughly two weeks of production. With most plant shutdowns lasting about 14 days for safety reasons, concerns are rising about meeting consumer demand.
Dr. Steve Meyer, economist with Kerns & Associates, estimates that 30% of pork processing capacity is off line. Urner Barry reported that 15 beef and pork plants (including further processing) are currently closed, while 10 beef and pork plants have reopened. On the poultry side, three have closed, and another has significantly reduced processing levels. Many plants are operating at reduced capacity.
“The food supply chain is breaking,” John Tyson, chairman of the board at Tyson Foods, wrote in a blog posted over the weekend.
He stated, “We have a responsibility to feed our country. It is as essential as health care. This is a challenge that should not be ignored. Our plants must remain operational so that we can supply food to our families in America. This is a delicate balance, because Tyson Foods places team member safety as our top priority.”
In the blog, Tyson called on government bodies at the national, state, county and city levels to “unite in a comprehensive, thoughtful and productive way to allow our team members to work in safety without fear, panic or worry. The private and public sectors must come together. As a country, this is our time to show the world what we can do when working together.”
He said, “In addition to meat shortages, this is a serious food waste issue. Farmers across the nation simply will not have anywhere to sell their livestock to be processed, when they could have fed the nation. Millions of animals – chickens, pigs and cattle – will be depopulated because of the closure of our processing facilities.”
Rep. Dusty Johnson (R., S.D.) welcomed the executive order, saying, “It’s imperative our supply chains remain open for both the American people and our producers. I’m encouraged the President and [the U.S. Department of Agriculture] are working to ensure our supply chains remain open both safely and swiftly. Our supply chains should continue to carry many of these safety practices into the future so we can ensure our economy isn’t faced with uncertainty down the road.”
Meanwhile, worker advocates have criticized the actions as putting workers at further risk.
“When poultry plants shut down, it's for deep cleaning and to save workers' lives. If the Administration had developed meaningful safety requirements early on, as they should have and still must do, this would not even have become an issue," Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale & Department Store Union, said. "Employers and government must do better. If they want to keep the meat and poultry supply chain healthy, they need to make sure that workers are safe and healthy.”