President Trump signed an executive order Tuesday night that will mandate meat processing plants to remain open and operational. Trump utilized the Defense Production Act to order the companies to stay open as critical infrastructure.
The order comes after guidance was issued by the Centers 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 for plants to implement help to ensure employee safety upon reopening plants or to continue to operate those still open.
Under the Executive Order and the authority of the Defense Production Act, USDA will work with meat processing companies 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.
The meat processing industry has witnessed a huge downturn in production with many plants unable to operate at full capacity due to outbreaks of COVID-19 in their workforce. According to DTN, Tuesday’s hog slaughter was down 188,000 head, or 32%, from a year earlier. DTN also said cattle slaughter was estimated at 76,000 head on Tuesday, 8,000 head less than a week ago and 45,000 head less than a year ago.
The situation, especially in the hog industry, is now leading to mass euthanasia strategies for hog producers. Officials in Minnesota have set up with a closed JBS plant in Worthington, Minn., to euthanize as many as 13,000 hogs a day.
USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue thanked the president for the order and said, “Our nation’s meat and poultry processing facilities play an integral role in the continuity of our food supply chain.” Perdue was joined by many in giving thanks including U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF) President and CEO Dan Halstrom who said, “The U.S. meat industry is already taking extraordinary steps to ensure worker safety, including COVID-19 testing, temperature checks, use of personal protective equipment and social distancing of employees.” Halstrom added, “further action is needed to stabilize our meat supply chain, and USMEF greatly appreciates the Trump administration’s prioritization of safe and consistent meat production and processing during this difficult time.”
However, not all groups agreed with the move. Environmental Working Group pointed to a report that stated 6,500 workers from meat processing facilities are either sick from COVID-19 or in isolation. The group also said the order is a death sentence if workers are not equipped with proper protection.
OSHA noted the Trump administration would support packers in court that are adhering to the OSHA-CDC joint guidance. “In addition, courts often consider compliance with OSHA standards and guidance as evidence in an employer’s favor in litigation,” OSHA stated. OSHA also noted the Trump administration would support packers in court that are adhering to the OSHA-CDC joint guidance.
National Cattlemen’s Beef Association CEO Collin Woodall said, “Processing plant employees play a role that is critical to the security of this nation and America’s cattle producers offer their sincere gratitude for the work they are doing to keep food shortages from compounding the complex issues we’re facing.”
“While there are currently no widespread shortages of beef, we are seeing supply chain disruptions because of plant closures and reductions in the processing speed at many, if not most, beef processing plants in the United States,” said Woodall. “We thank President Trump for his recognition of the problem and the action he has taken today to begin correcting it.”
Woodall added that reopening plants will reduce the economic damage being inflicted on cattle producers who have been unable to get cattle shipped or processed because of the supply-chain disruptions.
The USDA has stated it will implement the president’s executive order and that additional details and information will be released soon.