Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue says plants that have slowed operations or shut their doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic need to develop a plan to bring their facilities back online.

In a pair of letters — one addressed to state governors, the other to leaders of meatpackers — Perdue says the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration are to be followed “with respect to any current or proposed actions that may lead to a reduction in the nation’s meat and poultry food supply.”

In the letter to the companies, Perdue says plants “contemplating reductions or operations or recently closed” that lack a clear timetable for resuming their operations should submit “written documentation of their operations and health and safety protocol based on the CDC/OSHA guidance to USDA.”

“Plants should resume operations as soon as they are able after implementing the CDC/OSHA guidance for the protection of workers,” the secretary added.

In the letter to governors, Perdue said the department and other federal partners “will continue to work with state and local officials to ensure that facilities are implementing best practices designed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, while maintaining operations.”

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The executive order announced last week exerted authority under the Defense Production Act to place meatpacking operations under the authority of the federal government rather than state or local authorities. But legal experts and industry stakeholders are at odds over whether the order can compel a facility to remain open and what liability protection it offers if workers are infected with the virus after returning to the job.

In his letters, Perdue does not mention any specific kind of enforcement action he plans to take against plants that do not operate under the CDC/OSHA guidance, but did note “further action under the Executive Order and the Defense Production Act is under consideration and will be taken if necessary.”

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