Perdue Details Packing Plant Requests

Ag Secretary Wants Updates on Closed Packing Plants, Directs Guidance on Worker Safety

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Sides of beef hang at a packing plant, several of which have closed due to COVID-19. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue wrote to governors and meatpackers asking them to update USDA on what plants are doing to reopen in response to President Donald Trump's executive order. (DTN file photo)

GLENWOOD, Iowa (DTN) -- With more packing plants idling in major red-meat states such as Nebraska, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue wrote to governors and stakeholders late Tuesday, asking them to document what they are doing to reopen.

The letters come a week after President Donald Trump signed an executive order delegating Perdue to use the Defense Production Act to take all appropriate actions to ensure meat and poultry processors continue operations.

While meatpacking plants for all major protein products are struggling to operate, grocers and fast-food restaurants in recent days are now curbing consumer purchases or having a hard time filling meat cases. Livestock producers are in crisis as market-ready animals remain on farms and the pork industry looks to euthanize animals that cannot be processed.

The loss of production capacity has sent the price of boxed beef to record levels just in the past two weeks with both choice and select grade beef over $4 a pound.

As DTN has reported, cattle processing right now is down roughly 37% from the same period a year ago while pork processing is down about 35% as well.

In his letter to governors, Perdue stated he had directed meat and poultry processors to follow the guidance (…) sent down on April 26 by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). CDC and OSHA called on packers to screen employees, clean shared tools and equipment, provide personal protective gear and implement social distancing practices.

Perdue said he understood state and local leaders are working to protect their citizens, "including those who work on the front lines in critical industries, such as meat and poultry processing. It is essential that we work together to ensure the health and safety of those who help keep food on the table during this unprecedented time."

Perdue added in the letters, "Further action under the Executive Order and the Defense Production Act is under consideration and will be taken if necessary."

Last Friday, CDC released a report showing 115 meat and poultry processing operations had nearly 5,000 positive COVID-19 cases and 20 deaths among workers. The Food and Environmental Reporting Network stated those figures have increased to 6,300 cases and 32 deaths.

While the president signed his executive order on packing plants last week, at least two packing plants in Nebraska have temporarily closed this week. Cargill has idled a beef plant in Schuyler, Nebraska, that processes an average of 4,500 cattle a day, while Tyson Foods also shut down a pork plant in Madison, Nebraska. Tyson's beef plant in Dakota City, Nebraska, the company's largest beef plant, also has been idled since last week.

Iowa officials also now are reporting coronavirus cases at specific work sites, showing a Tyson pork plant in Perry, Iowa, has 730 workers who tested positive, or 58% of the workforce there. Iowa also has seen both beef and pork plants close across the state. Tyson announced Tuesday it would reopen limited production at a plant in Waterloo, Iowa, where 444 workers had tested positive in recent weeks.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds is set to meet with President Trump on Wednesday at the White House to update the president on what Iowa has done to manage COVID-19.

In South Dakota, Smithfield Foods' pork plant has partially reopened this week after being closed since April 12. The Sioux Falls plant became one of the first "hot spots" in rural America that put a spotlight on the volume of coronavirus cases. Roughly 850 workers there were infected with the virus.

Perdue also stated USDA has directed meat and poultry plants that have closed since May 1 and "without a clear timetable for near-term resumption of operations" to provide USDA with details on their protocols based on the CDC/OSHA guidelines, "and resume operations as soon as they are able ..."

While USDA is working to get plants operating, the department also stated to DTN on Wednesday that the Food Safety and Inspection Service staff "are still meeting all of their inspection responsibilities" despite citing that 195 FSIS meat inspectors have been infected with COVID-19 as of Tuesday and another 120 FSIS employees under self-quarantine.

USDA stated the agency "has taken the unprecedented step of protecting its employees by allowing those inspectors in high-risk health categories to self-certify with their supervisor and excusing them from inspection duties until the risk from COVID-19 decreases or is mitigated."

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Chris Clayton