NM Meat Plant Fights to Reopen

Lawsuit Challenges State Officials on Decision to Close Stampede Meat Plant on COVID-19 Concerns

Todd Neeley
By  Todd Neeley , DTN Staff Reporter
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A meatpacking company in New Mexico is fighting the state to reopen a plant closed because of COVID-19 concerns. (DTN file photo)

OMAHA (DTN) -- The state of New Mexico last week ordered the 14-day closure of Stampede Meat's Sunland Park meatpacking plant in response to rising COVID-19 cases and now the company is suing.

The Illinois-based company is one of the largest manufacturers of portion-controlled proteins including beef, chicken, turkey and pork, as well as meals, in the United States.

Meatpacking plants were declared by President Donald Trump as essential businesses to remain open during the COVID-19 pandemic, after a number of COVID-19 outbreaks in packing plants across the country stymied the food-supply chain.

Stampede Meat said in a lawsuit filed last week in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico that the company had taken steps to safeguard workers, alongside working with state and federal officials.

The state's order issued on Nov. 3, 2020, required the closure of businesses experiencing four or more positive COVID-19 tests during a 14-day period. The state deemed the Stampede Meat plant to be a business that "poses a significant health risk."

"Despite repeated inquiries, defendants have failed to provide the basis of that determination," the company said in its lawsuit.

USDA offered to provide more resources for testing at the Stampede Meat plant, but the lawsuit said the New Mexico Department of Health declined.

The company argued in the lawsuit that Trump's executive order signed on April 28, 2020, prohibits state authorities from ordering packing plants to close when facilities are in compliance with federal guidelines.

"The Stampede Meat closure order also violates the U.S. Constitution and New Mexico Constitution because it has been issued in an arbitrary and capricious manner, absent due process," the lawsuit said.

"Stampede Meat, its workforce, and the nation will suffer irreparable harm absent an order freezing the status quo ante. Further, Stampede Meat is likely to succeed on the merits of its claim for a declaratory judgment and the balance of the equities favors a restraining order in this case."

On Monday the company requested the court issue a temporary restraining order to prevent the state from closing the plant and issuing fines.

"Stampede Meat has already attempted repeatedly to work with the defendants to address any legitimate concerns," the lawsuit said.

"It has been met with silence aside from this most recent direction to fully shut down operations, direction that ignores the express orders of the president of the United States and the secretary of agriculture, or risk civil and criminal penalties."

The company said in the lawsuit it developed and implemented a plan back in May 2020 to protect plant workers while maintaining production, "well before any governmental body required it to do so."

"Stampede Meat has repeatedly updated its plan to ensure it fully complies with and in many instances exceeds all applicable federal, state and local COVID-19 guidelines," the lawsuit said.

"Throughout the pandemic, Stampede Meat has deftly balanced its role as a vital piece of critical national infrastructure with its commitment to the safety and wellbeing of its employees and local community."

Stampede Meat, Inc., is based in Bridgeview, Illinois, and specializes in custom-made, center-of-the-plate beef, pork and chicken products for restaurants, hospitality, retail, supermarket, casino, home delivery, and other industries.

Disruptions in the food-supply chain back in the spring as meatpacking plants closed from virus outbreaks exposed weak spots in food processing. The disruptions put a spotlight on how the federal government comes to the rescue when farmers and ranchers sustain big losses.

A number of meatpacking companies across the country face lawsuits alleging they failed to protect workers who contracted the virus and eventually died.

Todd Neeley can be reached at todd.neeley@dtn.com

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Todd Neeley