WASHINGTON/CHICAGO (Reuters) - President Donald Trump on Tuesday ordered meat-processing plants to stay open to protect the food supply in the United States, despite concerns about coronavirus outbreaks, drawing a backlash from unions that said at-risk workers required more protection.
With concerns about food shortages and supply chain disruptions, Trump issued an executive order using the Defense Production Act to mandate that the plants continue to function.
The world’s biggest meat companies, including Smithfield Foods Inc SFII.UL, Cargill Inc CARG.UL, JBS USA [JBS.UL] and Tyson, have halted operations at about 20 slaughterhouses and processing plants in North America as workers fall ill, stoking global fears of a meat shortage.
The order is designed in part to give companies legal cover with more liability protection in case employees catch the virus as a result of having to go to work.
John H. Tyson, chairman of Tyson Foods, said on Sunday that the food supply chain was “breaking” and warned of the potential for meat shortages.
Before issuing the executive order, Trump told reporters in the Oval Office that signing the order, “... will solve any liability problems,” adding, “And we always work with the farmers. There’s plenty of supply.”
The executive order, released Tuesday evening, said the closure of just one large beef-processing plant could result in 10 million fewer individual servings of beef in a day.
“Such closures threaten the continued functioning of the national meat and poultry supply chain, undermining critical infrastructure during the national emergency,” the order said.
A senior administration official said the U.S. government would also provide guidance to minimize risk to workers who are especially vulnerable to the virus, such as encouraging older workers and those with other chronic health issues to stay home.
Unions were not impressed. Some farmers said it was too late because pigs had been euthanized already instead of the pork going to market.
“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,” the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union said in a statement.
UFCW, the largest U.S. meat-packing union, demanded that the administration compel meat companies to provide “the highest level of protective equipment” to slaughterhouse workers and ensure daily coronavirus testing.
The senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said if action were not taken, the vast majority of processing plants could have shut down for a period of time, reducing capacity by as much as 80%.
The order was little consolation for farmers such as Henry Moore of Clinton, North Carolina, who in recent weeks aborted thousands of unborn piglets and euthanized newly born because of closures of packing plants.
“At this point, honestly, it’s a little too late,” Moore said. “There’s millions and millions and millions of pounds of pork that will never make it to the market.”
Tyson said on Wednesday it was closing two pork-processing plants, including its largest in the United States, further tightening meat supplies following other major slaughterhouse shutdowns.
U.S. meat companies slaughtered an estimated 283,000 hogs on Tuesday, down about 43% from before plants began shutting because of the pandemic, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data. Processors slaughtered about 76,000 cattle, down about 38%.
Critics of Trump’s order made clear that plants were being shut down for a reason.
“When poultry plants shut down, it’s for deep cleaning and to save workers’ lives. If the administration had developed meaningful safety requirements early on as they should have and still must do, this would not even have become an issue,” Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said in a statement.
The White House worked directly with executives from the meat-processing companies to determine what they needed to stay open safely, the administration official said. He said there were enough workers who could safely go to work and ensure the supply chain continued to churn.
More than 6,500 meat- and food-processing workers have been infected with or exposed to the new coronavirus, and 20 have died, the UFCW said on Tuesday.
Administration officials and some Republicans on Capitol Hill have said that businesses that are reopening need liability protection from lawsuits employees might file if they become sick.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, speaking to reporters on a teleconference on Tuesday that mainly centered on immigrants working in the healthcare sector, was asked about Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s pushing for business liability protections as they reopen their operations.
“Is he saying if an owner tells a worker he needs to work next to a sick person without a mask and wouldn’t be liable? That makes no sense,” Schumer said.
Reporting by Jeff Mason and Tom Polansek; additional reporting by Tom Hals, Lisa Lambert, Richard Cowan and Steve Holland; Editing by Grant McCool and Leslie Adler