economy Markets politics

Give Me Bacon Or Give Me Death: Trump Orders Meat Plants Open As Shortages Loom

No more "road blocks".

Donald Trump has seen enough when it comes to shuttered meat processing facilities.

Following a wave of closures which, according to the likes of Tyson and Smithfield, are set to cause imminent shortages at grocery stores and leave farmers with little choice but to destroy millions of animals, the president declared some plants critical infrastructure in an executive order signed on Tuesday evening.

The move comes amid a veritable cacophony of shrill warnings about the US food supply chain, which the administration continues to insist is safe. That characterization has been challenged by executives at the nation’s largest meat companies. “The food supply chain is breaking”, John H. Tyson, chairman of Tyson Foods’ executive board, warned, in a full-page ad that ran Sunday in The Washington PostThe New York Times and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Read more: Tyson Delivers Shrill Warning. Says Food Supply Chain ‘Breaking.’ Shortages, Mass ‘Depopulation’ Imminent.

Trump used the Defense Production Act to carry out the order, an idea championed by some Iowa politicians. “Given the high volume of meat and poultry processed by many facilities, any unnecessary closures can quickly have a large effect”, the order reads. “Under established supply chains, closure of a single meat or poultry processing facility can severely disrupt the supply of protein to an entire grocery store chain”.

The move could leave the White House at odds with local and state officials as well as with labor unions, all of whom have expressed grave concerns about the spread of the virus at various facilities across the country.

There are, in short, legal worries. Smithfield has already been sued, for example, as discussed in the linked post above.

Tyson last week announced a series of actions, including shuttering a pair of pork processing plants and a critical beef facility in Washington. US wholesale beef touched a record high last Thursday and wholesale pork logged its largest weekly advance in around eight years. Prices look poised to rise further.

(BBG, USDA data)

It will fall to the government to provide companies with the extra protective equipment they need to keep employees safe. Talks between the White House and industry executives are ongoing, apparently.

Bloomberg says Pat Cipollone has consulted with private companies on the outlines of “a federal mandate to keep the plants open and to provide them additional virus testing capacity as well as protective gear”.

The following excerpt (from an article published by The Daily Iowan on Monday) provides a bit of useful context:

Gov. Kim Reynolds, along with other state officials, asked for immediate federal assistance for Iowa’s pork producers in a letter addressed to Vice President Mike Pence and the White House Coronavirus Task Force on Monday. 

The letter requests that the task force use all available authorities, including invoking the Defense Production Act, to keep pork processing plants open and reopen closed plants as quickly as possible while also keeping safety measures in place. 

The letter was signed by Reynolds, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, and Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig.

More than 25% of pork production is currently offline in the US. For beef, the number is around 10%. That’s according to United Food & Commercial Workers, America’s largest food and retail union, which counts some 1.3 million members in grocery stores, pharmacies and meatpacking plants.

On Tuesday, the union released new figures on industry infections and death tolls. To wit:

According to the UFCW’s internal reports, which were released on Workers Memorial Day, there have been at least 72 worker deaths and 5,322 workers directly impacted among UFCW members. This covers grocery, retail, pharmacy, meatpacking, and other essential industries and those directly impacted include workers who tested positive for COVID-19, missed work due to self-quarantine, are awaiting test results, or have been hospitalized, and/or are symptomatic. On Workers Memorial Day, UFCW is calling on America’s elected and corporate leaders, as well as American shoppers, to take immediate steps to protect these workers before more lives are lost.

In a separate release, the union took Tyson to task on the claims the company made in the advertisement mentioned above. “UFCW is calling on [Tyson and all companies the meatpacking industry] to strengthen transparency on plant safety and immediately join the union in calling for these workers to be designated as first responders during the outbreak”, a statement reads.

UFCW International President Marc Perrone had this to say to the meatpacking industry:

America’s meatpacking workers and our nation’s food supply are in greater danger every day that companies and leaders fail to act during this outbreak. It is clear that our food supply chain is threatened, and that is why our country’s elected and corporate leaders must act now.

Tyson and every company across this vital industry, must immediately join with UFCW in calling for federal and state elected leaders to designate these frontline workers as first responders. Temporary first responder status ensures these workers have priority access to the COVID-19 testing and protective equipment they need to continue doing these essential jobs. Our federal leaders must enforce clear guidelines to ensure every employer lives up to the high safety standards these workers deserve and the American people expect.

Meatpacking companies must increase transparency around their safety efforts to ensure that meatpacking workers, elected leaders, and the communities they serve know exactly what steps they are taking to keep workers safe and our food supply secure. Simply put, given the nature of this COVID-19 crisis, words are not enough. American workers and families across the country cannot wait any longer. Our elected leaders and companies across the industry must act now.

More than 70% of the beef and 60% of the pork consumed in the United States is processed in meat packing plants by UFCW members, the union says.

“Under the delegation of authority provided in this order, the Secretary of Agriculture shall take all appropriate action… to ensure that meat and poultry processors continue operations consistent with the guidance for their operations jointly issued by the CDC and OSHA”, the order goes on to say.

Trump will need to walk a fine line on this issue. On one hand, everyone wants to work, and everyone wants to feed the country. But on the other hand, nobody wants to die doing it.

So, the White House has to somehow satisfy all parties involved, which may very well entail taking on companies’ legal risk.

Trump on Tuesday indicated he planned to assist Tyson with its liability, which he described as “a road block”.

Earlier, the president retweeted a series of messages posted by “The Counter” which cast doubt on the notion that grocery stores would, in fact, face shortages. “There is no shortage of meat destined for the grocery store shelf”, the organization said. “It might take stores longer than usual to restock certain products, due to supply chain disruptions, but we have many millions of pounds of meat in cold storage across the nation”, reads a lengthy thread.

According to Bloomberg, total meat supplies in cold storage facilities amount to around two weeks of production. (Less, if everyone eats as much beef as the president.)


11 comments on “Give Me Bacon Or Give Me Death: Trump Orders Meat Plants Open As Shortages Loom

  1. Over the past 5 years, the big 4 major packers have been systematically shutting down beef processing plants in order to push retail prices up and to create an artificial glut at the cattle producer end that allows them to bid lower and lower prices for their supply. They have been working together on this and are now being sued in Anti-trust actions by smaller beef operators and grower’s orgs. The best thing Trump can do is push the USDA to allow smaller local plants to process beef without the very high bar of the current regulations that block producers from going direct to retail in many markets. This current EO will likely empower the big 4 to continue to manipulate the market – now with Gov blessing.

  2. I’m confused.
    The protestors in Michigan and elsewhere are demanding their “freedom” to move about, go back to work, etc, and this is supported by Trump regardless of health consequences.
    Liberty or Death.

    Now he/Trump is demanding the meat-packing people go back to work not only depriving them of their freedom to choose not to work in unsafe conditions but possibly subjecting them to a death sentence.
    No Liberty and Death.

    It’s a head scratcher but most of what comes from this Administration is.

  3. I live in Black Hawk County Iowa. Home if the Waterloo Tyson’s plant. We went from 20 cases on 4/9 to 1,346 cases yesterday / there is a significant lag before all cases appear in the national numbers. There are only 130,000 people in the county. Tyson closed a plant in Cedar Rapids and sent workers to Waterloo. Local medical persons say they have seen multiple virus infections from individuals who live in the Cedar Rapids area. Pretty scary. Makes the “protect the good chain” approach from Washington feel, how should I put it, personal…… Love the site, love the insight.

  4. To the Title I say OK…

    The question I would have can he actually unilaterally take on legal liability or give immunity? I would have thought these to be the perview of congress. Will corporate lawyers want the risk that Trump’s orders are flawed? Does this go exactly no where?

    • It is amusing to try to trace the chain of command from the president to corporate meat packers and unions. One might almost suspect the President is not in fact in any position to declare this at all as he is ultimately in some ways not actually an emperor and is up for election in Nov…

      • He is planning to use the Defense Procurement powers. This is interesting as can he shield Tyson from lawsuits they ignored worker safety? It is a modern day example of greed like Upton Sinclairs, “The Jungle”. Obviously all Trump is concerned about is votes, how many people die to secure his voters is of no consequence.

    • Trump and Congress have blanket immunity from such actions. DOJ can grant immunity.

  5. Grant a preemptive pardon and make the executives say workers health is really important. Yeah, that should do it. Another problemo solved!

  6. I wonder how many workers in these plants are “guest” workers — you know, the kind of workers that Stephen Miller and Trump want to bar from the country. The kind of workers that take “our” jobs — until you realize no one else wants to do those jobs. #MAGA

    • I spent 35 years in Black Hawk County and remember when IBP built that plant. I also remember a roundup of “guest” workers by ICE that netted over 1000 people who thew agents then parked in a rundown local arena. If I had to make a guess I’d say half the meat industry work force in the state could be “guests.

  7. For guys like Trump, and sadly many of my fellow Americans, keeping the plants open and risking the health of workers (predominantly immigrants from poor Central American countries) is preferable than to subjecting their fat behinds to a diet of fish and veggies for a few weeks. America must adhere to the words of the great philosopher Peyton Manning: Cut that Meat!

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