An executive order expected to be signed Tuesday at the White House would call on meatpacking plants to remain open during the coronavirus pandemic, but critics say it is forcing workers back into a dangerous environment.
The order is expected to assert the Defense Production Act as rationale for processing facilities to remain open and keep processing food for consumers. Facilities across the country have shut down in recent weeks after COVID-19 outbreaks among staff, leaving producers worried they’ll be forced to depopulate their herds. Some pork producers have already euthanized herds.
“We’re going to sign an executive order today, I believe, and that’ll solve any liability problems where they had certain liability problems,” Trump said of meatpackers, specifically mentioning Tyson. “We’ll be in very good shape.”
The move comes after four Iowa Republicans — Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, Gov. Kim Reynolds, and state ag secretary Mike Naig — asked Trump to, among other things, invoke the DPA as part of using authorities “to keep plants open, and to re-open closed facilities as soon as it is possible to do so safely.”
Many food and ag groups were growing concerned about the prospect of prolonged plant shutdowns, so Trump’s move is a welcome one in farm country.
“The situation faced by meat processors is unprecedented and without action today, there is a very real threat of severe disruptions to the food supply chain,” Chuck Conner, president of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, said in a statement. “In addition, inaction will have impacts far into the future, as the inability to sell the animals they have raised and fed threatens the financial viability of farmers and ranchers across the U.S.”
But worker advocates decried the order as one that did not account for the health and safety of plant employees.
According to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, at least 5,000 meatpacking workers and 1,500 food processing workers have been directly impacted by the virus. UFCW estimates 20 sector workers have died as a result of the virus.
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“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,” UFCW International President Marc Perrone said in a statement. “Simply put, we cannot have a secure food supply without the safety of these workers.”
He said UCFW is pushing for “clear and enforceable safety standards” that include access to PPE, daily testing, physical distancing at plants, and full paid sick leave for any infected workers.
Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said when plants close down, it’s due to the need for deep cleaning after positive COVID-19 cases.
“We only wish that this administration cared as much about the lives of working people as it does about meat, pork and poultry products,” Appelbaum 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.”
This story will be updated to include additional reaction and information.
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