But the order, which gives Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue the power to invoke the defense production law and compel companies to keep their factories simmering, has not yet forced any closed facilities to return online. Some have already started to reopen with stricter social distancing measures in place, while others remain offline after the virus swept through employees in more than a dozen large facilities across the country.
“I don’t think it has much effect,” said Stephen Meyer, economist at Kerns & Associates working with the pork industry. “You can tell anyone to open a factory, but if the workers don’t show up, it doesn’t work. “
“It’s nice for the president to think that we are important and everything, but I don’t think it will open up a lot of factories,” he added.
High absenteeism rates, whether sick workers or fearful employees who stay at home to avoid infection, have plagued the meat industry for weeks, where workers often work close collaboration. A Center for Disease Control and Prevention study released on Friday found that more than 4,900 workers in meat and poultry plants have tested positive for Covid-19, and at least 20 have died.
Trump signed the decree on Tuesday and said he would solve the “liability issues” facing meat companies, some of which feared being sued by employees who might feel compelled to work in dangerous conditions. The CDC and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) released new guidelines for the meat industry on Sunday that encouraged social distancing – but the guidelines are not mandatory, and leaders unions say companies may not fully follow them.
Senior Labor Department officials said in a statement about the order that “good faith attempts” to comply with the new guidelines would have an impact on a business if investigated or prosecuted.
“They’ve given voluntary guidelines that won’t apply,” said Mark Lauritsen, director of the food processing, packaging and manufacturing division of the International Union of United Workers of the food and trade.
Lauritsen said unions will ask the Trump and state governments for additional levels of personal protective equipment as well as tougher social distancing in factories.
“But the fact is, employers have no incentive to change,” he said. “It definitely alleviates the concerns of the meat companies. “
Plants remain closed
Some of the country’s largest meat packing plants – including Smithfield’s Sioux Falls, South Dakota, pork factory and Tyson’s Waterloo, Iowa, pork factory – are still closed after suffering from coronavirus outbreaks.
And the virus continues to penetrate the staff of factories that remain open. In a Triumph Foods pork processing plant in Jefferson City, Missouri, 295 employees tested positive; more than 200 of the cases were detected this week alone.
A company spokesperson said the factory test data would shape “daily staff and work plans,” but did not say the facility would close.
Trump’s decree also cannot prevent new factories from shutting down or reducing production.
Tyson announced on Thursday that it would temporarily shut down its beef plant in Dakota City, Nebraska, for a thorough cleanup after employees screened for the virus.
The plant, which the company says can generally produce enough beef in one day to feed 18 million people, will remain offline until next week.
The Ministry of Agriculture said it was working with the supply chain task force to secure the personal protective equipment essential for food supply workers. A department spokesman told CNN that the execution of the order involved asking factories to follow CDC and OSHA directives, but the spokesman did not say the agency would brandish the Defense Production Act against any particular company.
Insofar as the administration’s decision had teeth, Meyer noted that the order allowed the federal government to override the will of local and state authorities who could push for the closure of an establishment infected with viruses. For example, the governor of South Dakota, Kristi Noem, and the mayor of Sioux Falls, Paul TenHaken, both Republicans, wrote to Smithfield to advocate for the closure of the major pork factory there at the mid-April, when the number of positive coronavirus cases in the establishment increased. in the hundreds.
But under the new decree, the USDA can push to keep open a factory that a state prefers to close.
Minnesota Governor Tim Walz said on Wednesday that despite the administration’s order, the closed JBS hog establishment should not reopen until it has proven that all workers will be protected.
“No executive order that I make or the president will change the fact that this virus will infect you if we don’t do it right,” said the Democratic Governor.
The Worthington, Minnesota, plant announced Wednesday that it will soon partially reopen with 10 to 20 of its more than 2,000 workers – but only to help producers slaughter and dispose of pigs that cannot be traded with the factory still closed.
Livestock euthanasia is still needed
While the President’s decree has come as good news for farmers and ranchers as well as for meat companies, pork producers say they will still need the support of the Trump administration to euthanize pigs that are outgrown while the processing plants were inactive.
Rachel Gantz, spokesperson for the National Pork Producers Council, said farmers are asking the federal government to compensate them for the animals they must slaughter, as well as to fund the euthanasia and elimination process.
The temporary shutdown of up to a quarter of the country’s processing capacity has left many pork producers stuck with the animals they planned to market. Operating on a just-in-time manufacturing system, farmers typically have to unload a group of pigs to make room for the next one – and with nowhere to take them, many producers have struggled to overcrowd and assume ‘increased costs of continuing to feed animals that should have been slaughtered.
Howard “AV” Roth, president of the National Pork Producers Council, said the administration’s decision offers hope to farmers struggling to manage a severely safeguarded pork supply across the country. But he noted that the order arrived too late for thousands of pigs that breeders will soon have to euthanize.
“Once these animals have grown too large, processing plants can no longer take them,” Roth told CNN. “With this order, we know there is light at the end of the tunnel. “
The JBS plant in Worthington, Minnesota, which opens only for the purpose of slaughtering pigs, will begin euthanizing about 13,000 animals a day, the company said on Thursday.
“None of us want to euthanize the pigs, but our producers are facing a terrible and unprecedented situation,” said Bob Krebs, president of JBS USA Pork. “We will do everything in our power to work with the State of Minnesota to re-open our facility responsibly as soon as possible to help producers who desperately need a more viable option for their hogs.” “
Manu Raju contributed to this story.