President Trump signed an executive order Tuesday that compels slaughterhouses to remain open, setting up a showdown between the giant companies that produce America’s meat and the unions and activists who want to protect workers in a pandemic.
Meat processing plants around the U.S. have shut down because of the coronavirus, but Trump said in the order that “such closures threaten the continued functioning of the national meat and poultry supply chain, undermining critical infrastructure during the national emergency.”
Using the Defense Production Act, Trump is ordering plants to stay open to keep people fed amid growing supply disruptions from the coronavirus outbreak. The government will provide additional protective gear for employees as well as guidance.
The move came just days after Tyson Foods Inc., the biggest U.S. meat processor, ran paid ads in national newspapers stating that the food supply chain was “broken.”
A handful of companies produce the majority of the nation’s meat, and as workers fell sick in March, plants initially continued to run. But pressure from local health officials and unions led to voluntary closures.
Companies have been pressing to reopen. The president himself has long agitated for Americans to return to work and restore an economy crippled by social distancing measures that are meant to slow the spread of the virus.
The Environmental Working Group called the order a potential death sentence. The United Food and Commercial Workers union said in a statement that if workers aren’t safe, the food supply won’t be either. At least 20 workers in meat and food processing have died, and 5,000 meatpacking workers have either tested positive for the virus or were forced to self-quarantine, according to UFCW.
While unions have been speaking out against unsafe plant conditions and working for boosts in pay, collective bargaining agreements often restrict them from organizing or endorsing strikes. Still, lives are at stake, unions say.
“People should never be expected to put their lives at risk by going to work,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. “If they can’t be assured of their safety, they have every right to make their concerns heard by their employers.”
Trump signaled the executive action at the White House on Tuesday, saying he planned to sign an order aimed at Tyson’s liability, which had become “a roadblock” for the company. He didn’t elaborate.
The order, however, isn’t limited to Tyson, an administration official said. It will affect many processing plants supplying beef, chicken, eggs and pork.
Shares of Tyson and poultry producer Sanderson Farms Inc. extended gains after news of the expected order, while shares of JBS, the world’s top meat producer, were little changed.
JBS’ local unit and Smithfield Foods Inc. didn’t immediately respond to calls and emails, while Tyson and Cargill Inc. said they couldn’t comment because they didn’t have the executive order. Tyson did say safety remains its top priority “while we work to continue fulfilling our role of feeding families across the country.”
The White House decided to make the move amid estimates that as much as 80% of U.S. meat production capacity could shut down. But a union representing plant workers accused the administration of failing to develop meaningful safety requirements that would have helped contain the disruptions.
On Sunday, Tyson Foods Chairman John Tyson said in a blog post and in newspaper ads that the U.S. food supply chain “is breaking,” with millions of pounds of meat set to “disappear” as plants close.
Illnesses in the meat-processing industry and shifts in demand after restaurants closed have disrupted the supply chain. Dairy farmers are dumping milk that can’t be sold to processors; broiler operations have been breaking eggs to reduce supplies; and some fruit and vegetables are rotting in fields amid labor and distribution disruptions.
Many low-income Americans, meanwhile, have been waiting in long lines at food banks, which have reported shortages. Asked about the country’s food supply, Trump said: “There’s plenty of supply.”
The Defense Production Act allows the government broad power to direct industrial production in crises. Trump has previously invoked the law — or threatened to invoke it — to increase the supply of medical gear such as ventilators, masks and swabs to test for coronavirus infection.
The White House has been discussing the order with meatpacking executives to determine what they need to operate safely and stay open, in order to prevent shortages, an administration official said.
White House General Counsel Pat Cipollone worked with private companies to design a federal mandate to keep the plants open and to provide them additional virus testing capacity as well as protective gear.
Trump acted the day after Iowa’s two U.S. senators and its governor urged the administration to invoke the Defense Production Act to keep meatpackers open and reopen closed facilities “as soon as it is possible to do so safely.” Iowa produces one-third of the nation’s pork supply, according to the state officials.
The officials also asked for federal assistance in euthanizing pigs and reimbursing hog farmers for their losses due to closures of processing facilities.
At least 22 meat plants have closed in the last two months, reducing pork processing capacity by 25% and beef processing capacity by 10%, according to UFCW. As a result, farmers have animals with nowhere to go, and the situation is so dire that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is setting up a center to help growers with “depopulation and disposal methods” for animals.
Experts have warned that the U.S. could be weeks away from shortages of fresh meat. Although inventories can provide some cushion, stockpiles are limited.
Total American 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, that further underscores the potential for deficits.
Even before the shutdowns, global meat supplies were tight. China, the world’s top hog producer, has been battling an outbreak of African swine fever, which destroyed millions of that country’s pigs.
Jacobs and Mulvany write for Bloomberg.