GLENWOOD, Iowa (DTN) -- Livestock producers will be able to continue selling animals for processing and food under the executive order signed late Tuesday by President Donald Trump.
The order effectively assures state and local officials cannot shut down a packing plant if it is following the worker-safety guidelines issued over the weekend by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
The president used the Defense Production Act to deem packing plants as critical infrastructure for the nation to protect the food supply.
The White House stated Tuesday the order was needed to "ensure the continued supply of beef, pork, and poultry to the American people." The executive order noted "the high concentration of meat and poultry processors in a relatively small number of large facilities" means "closure of any of these plants could disrupt our food supply and detrimentally impact our hardworking farmers and ranchers."
Throughout April, at least 20 packing plants around the country have been forced to idle or drastically reduce capacity because of growing worker illnesses. Those include plants in Colorado, South Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota, each of which account for 5% of processing capacity in the pork or beef industries. The Smithfield Food plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., became one of the nation's "hotspots" for cases in early April, forcing Smithfield to close the plant on Easter. The plant has now been linked to at least 850 cases.
The high volume of worker infections, leading to at least 20 related deaths, caused packers to close plants across the Midwest and Southeast, especially as state and local officials raised alarms over the volume of worker-related cases. As of Tuesday, cattle slaughter was down 31% and pork slaughter down 32%.
Just Tuesday, hog slaughter was down 188,000 head, or 32%, from a year earlier. The situation, especially in the hog industry, is now leading to mass euthanasia strategies for hog producers. Officials in Minnesota have set up with a closed JBS plant in Worthington, Minn., to euthanize as many as 13,000 hogs a day.
Groups representing meat packers, the chicken industry and cattle producers late Tuesday praised the president's order for ensuring plants will remain open or reopen quickly.
"While there are currently no widespread shortages of beef, we are seeing supply chain disruptions because of plant closures and reductions in the processing speed at many, if not most, beef processing plants in the United States," said Colin Woodall, CEO of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. "We thank President Trump for his recognition of the problem and the action he has taken today to begin correcting it."
Woodall added that reopening plants will reduce the economic damage being inflicted on cattle producers who have been unable to get cattle shipped or processed because of the supply-chain disruptions.
"We understand and appreciate the difficulties facing processing plant workers during this crisis," Woodall said. "Processing plant employees play a role that is critical to the security of this nation and America's cattle producers offer their sincere gratitude for the work they are doing to keep food shortages from compounding the complex issues we're facing."
The North American Meat Institute, which has been quiet throughout the growing number of plant closures and worker infections, issued a statement Tuesday thanking the president as well.
"By keeping meat and poultry producers operating, the president's executive order will help avert hardship for agricultural producers and keep safe, affordable food on the tables of American families," said Meat Institute President and CEO Julie Anna Potts. "The safety of the heroic men and women working in the meat and poultry industry is the first priority. And as it is assured, facilities should be allowed to re-open. We are grateful to the president for acting to protect our nation's food supply chain."
NAMI added the packing industry "has and will continue to implement the Centers for Disease Control and Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidance released Sunday." Those practices include testing, temperature checks, face covering, social distancing of employees where possible and other measures.
OSHA on Tuesday issued a statement citing enforcement guidelines the agency will use for employers. Plants should conduct worksite assessments and adhere to the guidelines as much as possible, as well as document specific reasons why a measure is not feasible. OSHA also noted the Trump administration would support packers in court that are adhering to the OSHA-CDC joint guidance.
"In addition, courts often consider compliance with OSHA standards and guidance as evidence in an employer's favor in litigation," OSHA stated. "Where a meat, pork, or poultry processing employer operating pursuant to the president's invocation of the DPA has demonstrated good faith attempts to comply with the Joint Meat Processing Guidance and is sued for alleged workplace exposures, the Department of Labor will consider a request to participate in that litigation in support of the employer's compliance program."
Unions that represent workers stated Tuesday more work needs to be done to protect them. The United Food and Commercial Workers -- which wrote the White House last week to get involved in protecting workers -- stated that the union shares concern over the food supply, but added, "Simply put, we cannot have a secure food supply without the safety of these workers," said Marc Perrone, international president for the UFCW. Perrone added, "All of our country's elected leaders -- federal and state -- must work together to ensure that we keep these essential workers safe and our country's food supply secure."
With questions about whether workers will return to packing plants that reopen, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said Tuesday that employees who choose not to return to work will lose any unemployment benefits in the state.
On Tuesday, USDA stated it would implement the president's executive order. This comes after USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service has had at least 100 inspectors infected, and one fatality. The union representing federal inspectors also had stated USDA earlier in the month told inspectors they needed to secure their own personal protective equipment.
"Our nation's meat and poultry processing facilities play an integral role in the continuity of our food supply chain," said Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. "Maintaining the health and safety of these heroic employees in order to ensure that these critical facilities can continue operating is paramount. I also want to thank the companies who are doing their best to keep their workforce safe as well as keeping our food supply sustained. USDA will continue to work with its partners across the federal government to ensure employee safety to maintain this essential industry."
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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