White House doubles down on meat industry order

By Marc Heller | 05/06/2020 01:13 PM EDT

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue is urging meatpacking plants to keep running during the coronavirus pandemic.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue is urging meatpacking plants to keep running during the coronavirus pandemic. Department of Agriculture/Flickr

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue put new pressure on meatpacking plants to keep running during the COVID-19 pandemic, telling companies in a letter last night that the Trump administration is considering further action to enforce its recent stay-open order.

In the letter, Perdue reminded major meatpacking companies of President Trump’s executive order declaring the plants critical infrastructure under the Defense Production Act. He nudged them further to follow federal health guidelines to protect workers from the novel coronavirus.

"Plants should resume operations as soon as they are able after implementing the CDC/OSHA guidance for the protection of workers," Perdue said, referring to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.


"Again, I exhort you to do this; further action under the Executive Order and the Defense Production Act is under consideration and will be taken if necessary," he said.

Perdue didn’t elaborate on the what those actions might be; the department didn’t immediately return a message from E&E News this morning seeking additional comment.

"Meat processing facilities are critical infrastructure and are essential to the national security of our nation," Perdue said in a news release. "Keeping these facilities operational is critical to the food supply chain and we expect our partners across the country to work with us on this issue."

The secretary’s letter, and a similar one he sent to governors last night, comes as the meat industry continues to grapple with coronavirus outbreaks among workers in some plants. Hog processing facilities have been hit especially hard, leading consumer groups and labor unions to call for mandatory protective equipment and other precautions in plants that reopen or remain open. Nearly two dozen meatpacking plants around the country have closed at some point during the pandemic.

So far, the federal government hasn’t required the plants to take the worker protection measures. But Perdue emphasized the issue in his letter and said idled plants that resume operations or are contemplating slowdowns should submit to USDA their health and safety protocols in accordance with the CDC and OSHA.

In Waterloo, Iowa, Tyson Foods said it would reopen its pork processing plant tomorrow. That facility closed April 22, and health officials have said more than 444 of the 2,800 employees there tested positive for the coronavirus.

More than half of the workers at another Tyson plant in Perry, Iowa, tested positive, the state health department said.

Tyson, in an open letter to employees last week, said it’s working with a mobile health clinic provider to give workers access to COVID-19 testing.

"The health and wellbeing of our team members and their loved ones is, and remains, our priority," the company said. "As we’ve shown in recent days, we will not hesitate to idle any plant for deep cleaning when the need arises."

The North American Meat Institute, an industry group, encourages its members to share worker-protection tips with each other and has offered guidance itself, said spokeswoman Sarah Little.

"Our members’ first priority is the safety of the men and women who work in their facilities," she told E&E News in a statement. "Member companies have and will continue to follow CDC/OSHA guidance and will attempt to run at full capacity as long as worker safety is ensured."

Even with the administration’s executive order, meat processing won’t quickly approach past levels, people close to the industry say. The need for workers in a normally close setting to now be spaced at least 6 feet apart will mean less production.

Pork processing in Iowa is at around 50% of capacity, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) told reporters in a conference call yesterday. The senator said the pandemic’s fallout has created "quite a backup on the farms" and praised Trump’s executive order to keep plants open as long as they can do so safely.

"He’s not going to put workers in jeopardy. He’s telling companies to make an environment to give people certainty that it’s safe," Grassley said.

Others repeated calls for mandatory safety measures, and enforcement, in meatpacking plants.

"Although some employers have taken steps to protect workers, these safety protections are not mandatory and are not subject to enforcement," said Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group. "Simply exhorting employers to keep workers safe, or requiring them submit records to the USDA, is not the same as setting and enforcing emergency standards."