April 30, 2020

Executive Order Keeps Meat Processing Facilities Open

An executive order signed April 28 by President Trump ensures that meat and poultry processing facilities will remain open during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite outbreaks of disease at several plants across the country. The order grants Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue the authority to “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 agencies had published interim guidance on April 26 that addresses cleaning of shared meatpacking and processing tools; screening employees for the coronavirus before they enter work facilities; managing workers who are showing symptoms of the coronavirus; implementing appropriate engineering, administrative, and work practice controls; using appropriate personal protective equipment; and practicing social distancing at the workplace.

Labor groups criticized the guidance and the executive order, which the president issued under the authority granted to him by the Defense Production Act. The law allows the president to direct private companies to prioritize orders from the federal government.

“To keep their doors open safely, meatpacking plants—and all essential workplaces—must operate under clear enforceable OSHA standards—not voluntary 'guidance’,” said Jessica Martinez, co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, in a statement emailed to news outlets.

Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, a member union of the AFL-CIO, released a similar statement. “Employers and government must do better,” Appelbaum said. “If they want to keep the meat and poultry supply chain healthy, they need to make sure that workers are safe and healthy.”

An analysis of the pandemic’s effects on the meat and poultry processing industry published April 24 by The Washington Post found that more than 3,300 workers in plants run by Tyson Foods, JBS USA, and Smithfield Foods—three of the largest meat and poultry producers in the U.S.—had become ill with coronavirus. At least 17 had died.

One Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., accounted for nearly 900 cases of COVID-19 infection and one death, the Post reported.