On April 28 President Donald Trump issued an executive order to keep meat and poultry processing facilities open during the coronavirus outbreak.
More than 20 meatpacking plants have closed temporarily under pressure from local authorities and their own workers because of the virus, including two of the nation's largest, one in Iowa and one in South Dakota. Others have slowed production as workers have fallen ill or stayed home to avoid getting sick.
The order uses the Defense Production Act to classify meat processing as critical infrastructure to try to prevent a shortage of chicken, pork and other meat on supermarket shelves.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said the move shows how important a role these facilities play.
“I thank President Trump for signing this executive order and recognizing the importance of keeping our food supply chain safe, secure and plentiful,” Perdue said in a news release. “Our nation’s meat and poultry processing facilities play an integral role in the continuity of our food supply chain.”
Perdue said the USDA and other government departments will be working with the processing plants to give guidance and ensure worker safety.
“Maintaining the health and safety of these heroic employees in order to ensure that these critical facilities can continue operating is paramount,” Perdue said. “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.”
Several ag groups weighted in on the decision.
“Iowa’s pig farmers appreciate the president taking this first important step to provide uniform and consistent solutions and all available resources to address the unprecedented crisis we are facing,” Mike Paustian, a producer from Walcott, Iowa, and president of the Iowa Pork Producers Association, said. “We must stabilize the current plant capacity challenge and overcome other major hurdles facing our nation’s pork production system.”
Paustian also mentioned the financial impact plant shutdowns have on “courageous” workers, and the need to ensure their health and safety when working.
Colin Woodall, president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said the move ensures consumers will have beef available.
“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,” he said.
U.S. Meat Export Federation president and CEO Dan Halstrom said the move supports steps the meat industry is already taking.
“The U.S. meat industry is already taking extraordinary steps to ensure worker safety, including COVID-19 testing, temperature checks, use of personal protective equipment and social distancing of employees,” he said. “But further action is needed to stabilize our meat supply chain, and USMEF greatly appreciates the Trump administration's prioritization of safe and consistent meat production and processing during this difficult time.”
Howard “A.V.” Roth, president of the National Pork Producers Council and a producer from Wauzeka, Wisconsin, said the move will help stabilize the food supply, although concerns remain.
“We must safely stabilize the current plant capacity challenge and overcome other major hurdles facing the nation's pork production system, one that employs 550,000 workers and generates $23 billion in personal income across rural America,” he said. “Hog values have plummeted to virtually zero and hog farmers are facing liquidation of their farms and other assets without immediate relief, including expanded financial aid without payment limitations.”
Despite the move, Roth said that with previous disruptions some producers will still need to euthanize pigs.
“While getting pork packing plants back online is foundational, the tragic reality is that millions of hogs can't enter the food supply,” he said. “We need coordinated partnership between the industry and federal, state and local authorities to euthanize pigs in an orderly, ethical and safe way.”
With additional reporting from the Associated Press.