GLENWOOD, Iowa (DTN) -- Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said Thursday some idled meatpacking plants could start operating again "in days, not weeks," as USDA works to implement an executive order from President Donald Trump.
Speaking on Fox News, Perdue said USDA is working with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to implement worker safety guidelines at packing plants. Perdue said employee safety and health are a primary goal.
"We're working with each of these plants to make sure they are complying with those (CDC guidelines) as well as the OSHA guidelines to keep the workers safe," Perdue said.
The secretary added "the president demonstrated leadership" in invoking the Defense Production Act. While there have been "rolling outages" of empty food shelves, Perdue said the administration's actions would protect the food supply.
"The good news today is we're having these plants prepared to open in days, not weeks, some maybe by the end of this week, over the weekend and others maybe early week," Perdue said. "So I think we may have kind of saved the situation here with this announcement to give these companies better coverage."
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., had said this week that Perdue wants to ensure three major pork plants reopened quickly -- JBS USA in Worthington, Minnesota; Smithfield Foods in Sioux Falls, South Dakota; and Tyson Foods in Waterloo, Iowa.
Hog slaughter numbers continue to decline daily. USDA reports show packers processed 271,000 head of hogs on Wednesday, down from 471,000 the same day last year. That puts production at roughly 58% compared to a year ago.
Perdue said closed packing plants had become "a missing link" in the country's just-in-time processing system, especially for hog producers. He was also asked about the divergence in prices between live cattle and boxed beef. The secretary said USDA continues to investigate "the historic divergence" between the markets.
"It certainly is disturbing for cattle people who have grown these animals to see their prices going down while the prices at the store are going up."
In Grand Island, Nebraska, Mayor Roger Steele wrote Perdue a letter about the situation with the JBS USA beef plant that employs about 3,600 people. The area around Grand Island has more than 1,000 cases of COVID-19 and had at least 35 fatalities from the virus, including 10 deaths just on Wednesday.
In a press conference Thursday, Steele said the president's order "confirms what we already knew" that the JBS plant is critical infrastructure. Steele noted that JBS has taken steps to increase worker safety, but Grand Island also has an infection rate that is 16 times higher than the rest of Nebraska.
"The COVID-19 virus is hitting us harder because we have many industries that support crucial supply chains," Steele said.
Now, though the president has declared the plant critical infrastructure, Steele said the president and USDA must make the safety of the employees a priority and test them. Steele said of his letter to the secretary, "I want him to tell me how the federal government will provide testing for workers at JBS. I want Secretary Perdue to come to Grand Island so I can explain to him the problems we have faced with government orders that have failed to protect the people of Grand Island."
Also in Nebraska, Tyson Foods announced it would temporarily halt production at its beef facility in Dakota City until May 4 for a deep cleaning at the plant.
Tyson announced Thursday is partnering with a medical clinic company, Matrix Medical Network, to provide on-site health care service at some of its facilities in Iowa, Indiana and Washington state. Once Tyson reopens the plants, Matrix will test workers for COVID-19 and provide other screening practices for workers as well. Tyson stated additional clinics will be set up at other Tyson facilities as needed.
Also addressing packing plant safety on Thursday was Secretary of Labor Gene Scalia, who told CNBC that it will require "constant attention" to keep meatpacking workers safe.
"Companies are going to need to pay attention to worker welfare," Scalia said. "At the same time, we know this is a critical part of our infrastructure, part of our food supply, that we need to keep available in a way that's safe for the supply and absolutely safe for the workers, too."
David Michaels, former OSHA head under the Obama administration, told MSNBC that the OSHA's guidance is largely a recommendation to packing plants, and not requirements. That is going to limit the effectiveness of the guidelines.
"OSHA should be issuing requirements saying we know how this job can be done safely. You have got to provide social distancing, you have got to provide hand-washing facilities and sanitation facilities, and you have to follow the rules," Michaels said.
"Instead, the path we're on will guarantee more workers getting sick. Because it's just a suggestion. There's no enforcement. In fact, OSHA has said it's not going to enforce."
Michaels added, "These recommendations don't work. You have to have a requirement."
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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