Fourteen meatpacking plants last week resumed operations following an executive order from President Donald Trump, which directed facilities to implement federal guidelines in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is working with meat processing facilities to confirm they will operate consistent with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Plants reopened in Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, Nebraska, Minnesota, South Dakota and Washington.
“President Trump took decisive action last week to ensure America’s meatpacking facilities reopen in a safe way to ensure America’s producers and ranchers will be able to bring their product to market,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a May 8 statement. “I want to thank the patriotic and heroic meatpacking facility workers who are returning to work this week so the millions of Americans who depend on them for food security can continue to do so.”
The reopening of the plants was met with opposition from a union representing meatpacking and food processing workers. In an April 23 letter to Vice President Mike Pence, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union called for the White House Coronavirus Task Force to increase worker testing, prioritize access to personal protective equipment, require social distancing, isolate workers who have symptoms or test positive for COVID-19, and stop so-called line speed waivers.
“These plants closed because at least 30 workers died and more than 10,000 workers have been infected or exposed to COVID-19,” UFCW International President Marc Perrone said in a statement. “Today’s rush by the Trump Administration to re-open 14 meatpacking plants without the urgent safety improvements needed is a reckless move that will put American lives at risk and further endanger the long-term security of our nation’s food supply.”
In related news, a federal court on May 5 dismissed a lawsuit that alleged Smithfield Foods Inc. failed to sufficiently protect its workers from coronavirus at its meat processing plant in Milan, Missouri. U.S. District Court Judge Greg Kays held he should decline to hear the dispute under the “primary jurisdiction doctrine” so OSHA could consider the issues.