President Donald Trump is reportedly planning to force meat processing plants to stay open, despite hundreds of employees who have tested positive for coronavirus at such facilities across the country.
Meatpacking plants across the US have been closing as their employees get sick, and their executives have warned that shortages are likely to result.
Bloomberg News reported that Trump will sign an executive order invoking the Defense Production Act (DPA) to avert closures of plants operated by companies such as Tyson Foods Inc., whose chairman John Tyson warned on Sunday that the “food supply chain is breaking.” The federal government will provide protective equipment to employees and issue additional guidance, according to Bloomberg.
The executive order, which would classify meat processors as “critical infrastructure,” was prompted by concerns that Tyson was planning to close 80 percent of its facilities, Axios reported.
It would go against calls from local officials and labor unions to close the plants, given the health risks for workers and their communities. And some food supply experts are skeptical that the supply chain is truly breaking — even if consumers might have more trouble finding the cuts of meat they prefer.
“The supply chain is struggling in a variety of ways, but the most vulnerable members of the supply chain in terms of livelihood and health are the farmers and the factory workers, not the consumers or grocery stores,” Julie Niederhoff, a supply chain management professor at Syracuse University, told Vox. “There is enough meat to sustain the American consumer market for some time even at the currently reduced production capacity. The decision to reopen the factories could help the farmers, but it is worrying if it is done without significant improvements to protect the workers and their communities first.”
The DPA offers the president broad powers to order domestic manufacturers to make necessary products in times of war or crisis. For more than a month, crisis response experts and lawmakers alike have been calling on the Trump administration to use the DPA during the coronavirus pandemic to order the production of critical medical equipment including face masks, protective gloves, ventilators, respirators and coronavirus tests.
Trump has so far only invoked the law to increase production of swabs needed for coronavirus testing. Now, he’s poised to use it for an entirely different purpose: to keep meat production up as concerns about potential shortages mount.
Plants have had to close as workers have gotten sick
Meat processing plants have become coronavirus hotspots.
Earlier this month, more than 640 workers tested positive at a processing facility in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, operated by Smithfield Foods, one of the United States’ largest pork producers. And on Wednesday, Tysons shut down its biggest pork processing facility in Waterloo, Iowa, after more than 180 workers tested positive.
Dozens of other processing facilities, from Colorado to Pennsylvania, have similarly ceased operations across the country.
The workers in these plants are often low-income — one Smithfield employee reported making $17.70 an hour, though workers have been offered a $500 bonus if they don’t miss any shifts in April. Nearly half of them are immigrants, according to the left-leaning think tank New American Economy.
Their work is physically taxing even in the best of times as they lift and slice through heavy cuts of meat. Now, it’s also potentially life-threatening: A 64-year-old Smithfield worker was among the reported industry deaths.
The rapid spread of coronavirus through meat processing plants is particularly concerning given that, even under normal circumstances, these kinds of facilities are highly sanitized and contained due to federal requirements for pathogen control and food safety. Julie Anna Potts, president and CEO of the North American Meat Institute, said there is complete disinfection of the facilities every night after the last shift. Workers have to wear hard hats, safety goggles, frocks, and boots.
Now, they’re also wearing masks and face shields, at least when the plants can obtain them, and they have been practicing social distancing where possible in cafeterias and places where the workers put their protective equipment on. Tyson Foods said it has also started taking employees’ temperatures either by hand or through infrared scanners. But on the processing floor, they’re standing shoulder to shoulder.
Employees have protested the lack of safe working conditions. Dozens of workers at a Perdue Farms facility in Kathleen, Georgia, staged a walkout in late March. An anonymous employee at a Smithfield plant in Milan, Missouri, also filed a lawsuit against the company claiming that it had not provided enough protective equipment to its employees and that they were discouraged from taking sick leave. (The company has denied the allegations.)
“[M]anagers never blatantly asked me to risk my life just by showing up — until this pandemic,” the employee wrote in an April 24 Op-Ed in the Washington Post. “Now just coming to work puts us at risk of exposure to a virus that’s killing thousands of people every single day.”
Meat producers are raising the alarm about the food supply — but experts are skeptical
Executives at the nation’s largest meat producers have warned that the meat supply chain is on the brink of collapse. But supply chain experts remain skeptical that consumers will see anything but spot shortages of certain meat products.
Kenneth M. Sullivan, Smithfield’s president and CEO, said in a statement earlier this month that the closure of processing facilities is “pushing our country perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply.” And on Sunday, Tyson claimed that “millions of pounds of meat will disappear from the supply chain” even if the closures only last for a short period of time.
“There will be limited supply of our products available in grocery stores until we are able to reopen our facilities that are currently closed,” he wrote.
Their statements have concerned lawmakers, including Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Mike Lee, who called for an investigation of the root causes of the disruptions to the meat supply chain on Monday.
“During this worldwide pandemic when unprecedented numbers of families are standing in food lines, we cannot afford to waste available food resources that could be utilized if only there were available options for processing and packing,” they wrote.
But even in spite of these challenges, industry analysts say the US is still producing large amounts of meat. Consumers might have to pay more for meat, and their preferred cuts, package sizes and brand names might not be available temporarily. But they won’t see entirely empty refrigerators if they shop shortly after a grocery store restocks.
The developed world has gotten used to the idea of being able to walk into the grocery store and pick up anything — but that’s a luxury, Yossi Sheffi, a supply chain expert and the director of MIT’s Center for Transportation and Logistics, told Vox.
“I don’t see any danger from temporary (and they are) closures of a few plants,” he said. “You may not get the cut you like or have to eat chicken instead of pork for a week or two in a few parts of the country. Really, this is not a national disaster.”