Tyson Columbus Junction

The Tyson plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa.

President Donald Trump plans to order slaughterhouses to remain open, setting up a showdown between the giant companies that produce America’s meat and the unions and activists who want to protect workers in a pandemic.

Using the Defense Production Act, Trump will order plants to stay open as part of the critical infrastructure needed to keep people fed amid growing supply disruptions from the coronavirus outbreak, a person familiar with the matter said. The government will provide additional protective gear for employees as well as guidance, according to the person.

The move would come just days after Tyson Foods Inc., the biggest U.S. meat processor, ran paid ads in national newspapers stating that the food supply chain was “broken.”

A handful of companies account for the majority of the nation’s meat, and as workers fell sick in March, plants initially continued to run. But pressure from local health officials and unions led to voluntary closures.

Meat plant closures

Environmental Working Group called the order a potential death sentence. The United Food and Commercial Workers union said in a statement that if workers aren’t safe, the food supply won’t be either. At least 20 workers in meat and food processing have died, and 5,000 meatpacking workers have either tested positive for the virus or were forced to self-quarantine, according to UFCW.

While unions have been speaking out against unsafe plant conditions and working for boosts in pay, collective bargaining agreements often restrict them from organizing or endorsing strikes. Still, lives are stake, unions say.

“People should never be expected to put their lives at risk by going to work,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. “If they can’t be assured of their safety, they have every right to make their concerns heard by their employers.”

Trump signaled the executive action at the White House on Tuesday, saying he planned to sign an order aimed at Tyson’s liability, which had become “a road block” for the company. He didn’t elaborate.

The order, though, will not be limited to Tyson, an administration official said. It will affect many processing plants supplying beef, chicken, eggs and pork.

JBS’s local unit and Smithfield Foods Inc. didn’t immediately respond to calls and emails, while Tyson and Cargill Inc. said they couldn’t comment because they don’t have the executive order. Tyson did say safety remains its top priority “while we work to continue fulfilling our role of feeding families across the country.”

The White House decided to make the move amid estimates that as much as 80% of U.S. meat production capacity could shut down. But a union representing plant workers accused the administration of failing to develop meaningful safety requirements that would have helped contain the disruptions.

‘Breaking’ chain

On Sunday, Tyson Foods Chairman John Tyson said in a blog post and paid advertisements in several newspapers that the U.S. food supply chain “is breaking,” with millions of pounds of meat set to “disappear” as plants close.

Illnesses in the meat-processing industry and shifts in demand after restaurants closed have disrupted the supply chain. Dairy farmers are dumping milk that can’t be sold to processors, broiler operations have been breaking eggs to reduce supplies and some fruit and vegetables are rotting in fields amid labor and distribution disruptions.

Many low-income Americans, meanwhile, have been waiting in long lines at food banks, which have reported shortages. Asked about the country’s food supply, Trump said: “There’s plenty of supply.”

The Defense Production Act allows the government broad power to direct industrial production in crises. Trump has previously invoked the law in order to increase the supply of medical gear including ventilators, masks and swabs to test for coronavirus infection.

The White House has been discussing the order with meatpacking executives to determine what they need to operate safely and stay open, in order to prevent shortages, an administration official said.

White House General Counsel Pat Cipollone worked with private companies to design a federal mandate to keep the plants open and to provide them additional virus testing capacity as well as protective gear.