U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday ordered processors of meat and poultry to stay open amid the COVID-19 outbreak, while the country’s largest meatpacking union called on the White House to take immediate action to strengthen worker testing.
Outbreaks of COVID-19 at some processing facilities have forced factory shutdowns and led to reduction in production capacity.
“Such closures threaten the continued functioning of the national meat and poultry supply chain, undermining critical infrastructure during the national emergency,” the U.S. president said in an executive order citing the Defense Production Act (DPA).
“Given the high volume of meat and poultry processed by many facilities, any unnecessary closures can quickly have a large effect on the food supply chain,” Trump said.
The president’s executive order came just days after Tyson Foods Inc., the biggest U.S. meat processor, warned that the food supply chain was “broken.”
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), the largest meatpacking union with 250,000 members across the industry in the country, on Tuesday called on Trump to take immediate action to support his new order.
“To protect America’s food supply, America’s meatpacking workers must be protected,” the UFCW said in a statement.
“These workers are putting their lives on the line every day to keep our country fed during this deadly outbreak,” the UFCW said, noting that at least 20 meatpacking workers have died from coronavirus while more than 5,000 workers have been hospitalized or are showing symptoms.
“For the sake of all our families, we must prioritize the safety and security of these workers,” said the statement.
“We urge the Administration to immediately enact clear and enforceable safety standards that compel all meatpacking companies to provide the highest level of protective equipment through access to the federal stockpile of PPE, ensure daily testing is available for workers and their communities, enforce physical distancing at all plants, and provide full paid sick leave for any workers who are infected,” said the union.
The DPA, a 1950 law that gives the government more control during emergencies to direct industrial production, had previously been invoked by Trump to demand private companies build more ventilators and prevent the export of personal protective equipment (PPE).
Last week, the UFCW sent a letter to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, urgently calling on the White House Coronavirus Task Force to prioritize several safety actions targeted at the meatpacking industry.
These actions include increased worker testing, priority to PPE, halting line speed waivers, mandating social distancing and isolating workers with symptoms or testing positive for COVID-19.
The latest UFCW estimates show 22 meatpacking plants have closed in the past two months, resulting in over 35,000 workers affected and a 25-percent reduction in pork slaughter capacity as well as a 10-percent reduction in beef slaughter capacity.
Some states have been pushing for reopening the economy, but workers and consumers still worry about the risk of getting infected, with the virus continuing to spread across the country.
As of Tuesday, over 1 million cases and over 58,000 deaths have been reported, according to a data-tracking tool developed by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. Enditem