President Donald Trump will take executive action Tuesday to order meat processing plants to stay open amid concerns over growing coronavirus cases and the impact on the nation’s food supply.
The order will use the Defense Production Act to classify meat processing as critical infrastructure to keep production plants open and prevent a shortage of chicken, pork, and other meat on American supermarket shelves.
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents 1.3 million food and retail workers, said Tuesday that 20 U.S. food-processing and meatpacking union workers in the U.S. have died of the virus. An estimated 6,500 are sick or have been exposed to the virus while working near someone who tested positive, the union says.
The order comes after industry leaders warned that consumers could see meat shortages in a matter of days because of the virus, which has forced some of the largest plants to close and others to slow production.
Two of the nation’s biggest pork processing plants are currently closed. Meat processing giant Tyson Foods suspended operations at its plant in Waterloo, Iowa. And Smithfield Foods halted production at its plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The 15 largest pork-packing plants account for 60% of all pork processed in the country.
A senior White House official said the administration was trying to prevent a situation in which a majority of the nation’s processing plants temporarily close, which could have led to an 80% drop in the availability of meat in supermarkets. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the order before its release.
The order is designed, in part, to protect companies from liability if workers end up getting sick.
Trump on Tuesday told reporters that “there’s plenty of supply,” but that supply chains had hit what he called a “legal roadblock.”
“That’ll solve any liability problems where they had certain liability problems and we’ll be in very good shape,” he said.
GOP Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota had written a letter to Trump asking him to use the DPA to declare the food supply industry an essential industry, warning that consumers would see a meat shortage in a matter of days akin to the panic over toilet paper the virus created in its early days.
Tyson ran a full-page advertisement in The New York Times and other newspapers Sunday outlining the difficulty of producing meat while keeping more than 100,000 workers safe and shutting some plants.
“As pork, beef and chicken plants are being forced to close, even for short periods of time, millions of pounds of meat will disappear from the supply chain,” it read.
But UFCW International President Marc Perrone said that more must be done to protect the safety of workers.
“Simply put, we cannot have a secure food supply without the safety of these workers,” he said in a statement, urging the administration “to immediately enact clear and enforceable safety standards” and compel companies to provide protective equipment, make daily testing available to workers, and enforce physical distancing, among other measures.
Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said the administration should have acted earlier to put safety measures in place.
“We only wish that this administration cared as much about the lives of working people as it does about meat, pork and poultry products,” he said.