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 Post, The New York Times and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
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.)