President Donald Trump has ordered meat factories to remain open to protect the country’s food supply amid the coronavirus pandemic.
He invoked a Korean War-era law to require factories to continue operating amid warnings from the industry about supply chain pressure.
An estimated 3,300 American meat packaging workers have been diagnosed with coronavirus and 20 have died.
Last month, the UN warned that the emergency was threatening global food supply chains.
Twenty-two US meat packaging plants in the American Midwest closed during the epidemic.
They include slaughterhouses owned by the country’s largest poultry, pork and beef producers, such as Smithfield Foods, Tyson Foods, Cargill and JBS USA.
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What does the White House say?
“Such closures threaten the continued functioning of the national meat and poultry supply chain, undermining essential infrastructure during the national emergency,” the executive decree said on Tuesday evening, citing the Defense Production Act of 1950. .
“Given the high volume of meat and poultry processed by many facilities, unnecessary shutdowns can quickly have a significant effect on the food supply chain. “
The ordinance designates meat packing plants as part of critical infrastructure in the United States.
A White House official told US media that he would work with the Department of Labor to issue advice to keep vulnerable workers, such as those over 65 and those with chronic health conditions, at home .
Like lambs at the slaughterhouse?
Analysis by Jessica Lussenhop, BBC News
Leaders of large meat packaging companies faced difficult questions about whether they were doing enough to prepare for the pandemic and protect workers.
In addition to the fact that production lines require workers to be very close to each other, most are hourly workers with low incomes.
Many are immigrants living from paycheck to paycheck, such as those from a pork factory in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, who told the BBC that despite the risk, they did not have no choice but to go to work if the factories were open.
Without strict compliance with safety guidelines – which are currently not considered “mandatory” by OSHA – it is not difficult to imagine new epidemics in factories, or virus outbreaks in factories that have closed but reopened prematurely.
All of this could leave these trapped employees with the same impossible choice they were in when the virus started spreading in factories in late March: risking my health or losing my job.
What does the meat industry say?
John Tyson, president of Tyson Foods, posted full-page advertisements in The Washington Post and The New York Times on Sunday to warn that “the country’s food supply is running out.”
“As pork, beef and chicken factories are forced to close, even for short periods, millions of pounds of meat will disappear from the supply chain,” he wrote.
“As a result, the supply of our products in grocery stores will be limited until we can reopen our facilities which are currently closed. “
He said millions of cattle, pigs and chickens will be euthanized due to the closure of slaughterhouses, which will limit supplies to supermarkets.
Pork production suffered the most, with daily production cut by at least a quarter.
Tyson – which employs some 100,000 workers nationwide – has suspended operations at its pork factory in Waterloo, Iowa.
Smithfield Foods has stopped production at its plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, after an epidemic infected hundreds of workers.
What are the unions saying?
The International Union of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), America’s largest meat packaging union, demanded that the Trump administration require meat companies to provide appropriate protective equipment and to provide daily coronavirus tests for slaughterhouse workers.
“While we share the concern about the food supply, today’s executive decree to force meat packing plants to remain open must prioritize the safety of packing workers at meat from our country, “said the union.
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The UFCW said the White House ordinance would provide legal cover for companies in the event that employees catch a coronavirus at work.
“We are working with Tyson,” Trump said on Tuesday. “We are going to sign an executive decree today, I believe, and that will resolve all the liability issues. “
Richard Trumka, President of the AFL-CIO union, said: “Using the executive to force people to go back to work without the proper protections is wrong and dangerous. “