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Trump Announces Plan to Reopen Processing Plants

Byron Center Meats in Plainwell is one of the processing plants in Michigan who will hopefully keep their doors open while practicing safety guidelines to protect workers against the spread of COVID-19. Photo courtesy: Michigan Farm Bureau
Byron Center Meats in Byron Center is one of the processing plants in Michigan who will hopefully keep their doors open while practicing safety guidelines to protect workers against the spread of COVID-19. Photo courtesy: Michigan Farm Bureau

President Trump signed an Executive Order (EO) April 28 to keep meat and poultry processing facilities open during the current situation with the country paralyzed under COVID-19. He used the Defense Production Act (DPA) to do so, a law that gives the president broad authority to increase the manufacturing output of critical items in a national emergency.

Trump’s action takes place against the backdrop of labor shortages at processing facilities, slowing throughput at plants around the country and even causing facilities to shut down due to the spread of COVID-19 among staff.

“It is important that processors of beef, pork, and poultry in the food supply chain continue operating and fulfilling orders to ensure a continued supply of protein for Americans,” Trump stated. “However, outbreaks of COVID-19 among workers at some processing facilities have led to the reduction in some of those facilities’ production capacity.

“Given the high volume of meat and poultry processed by many facilities, any unnecessary closures can quickly have a large effect on the food supply chain.”

The order directs Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to “take all appropriate action under that section to ensure that meat and poultry processors continue operations consistent with the guidance for their operations jointly issued by the CDC and OSHA,” as stated in the EO.

“I thank President Trump for signing this executive order and recognizing the importance of keeping our food supply chain safe, secure, and plentiful,” Perdue said. “Our nation’s meat and poultry processing facilities play an integral role in the continuity of our food supply chain.

The EO should be good news for Michigan livestock producers to help keep the 93,000 head of beef cattle (Jan. 2020) and 1.2 million head of hogs (Dec. 2019) moving through the production cycle, according to Ernie Birchmeier, livestock and dairy specialist with Michigan Farm Bureau.

“We’re very thankful to the Trump administration for its action on this critical issue,” Birchmeier said. “While safety of the work force is a top priority, it’s imperative for our livestock producers and our consumers that we have a functioning meat processing industry.

Birchmeier stated many farmers are facing tough decisions as livestock destined for processing have nowhere to go.

“Currently, we have lost more than 25% of our pork processing capacity in the U.S., and the beef packing industry has faced similar shut downs and poultry processing plants have been shuttered as well,” Birchmeier added. “Regardless of the industry, whenever you lose that much of your processing capacity, the results can be devastating. Our farmers are working to care for their livestock, but they need normal market access open so animals can be moved off the farm. This is a very critical time.”

According to Michael Nepveux, economist with the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), cattle slaughter has declined by 32% from its March high of 685,000 head and 27% from the same week in 2019. Before the spread of COVID-19, 2020 was forecast to be a record year for beef and pork production.

The news of the EO was well received by AFBF President Zippy Duvall.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented crisis for American farmers. Farmers and ranchers face heartbreaking decisions … because of plant closures,” Duvall said. “It’s important for our elected leaders at all levels to understand the critical nature of this crisis.

“We don’t yet know the details of the President’s actions to address meat packing plant closures but are hopeful it will protect the health and safety of workers while keeping farmers and ranchers in the business of providing food for families across America,” Duvall added.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of the Department of Health and Human Services and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) of the Department of Labor have put out guidance for plants to implement to help ensure employee safety to reopen plants or to continue to operate those still open.

Under the EO and the authority of the DPA, USDA will work with meat processing to affirm they will operate in accordance with the CDC and OSHA guidance, and then work with state and local officials to ensure that these plants can operate to produce the meat protein that Americans need. USDA will continue to work with the CDC, OSHA, FDA, and state and local officials to ensure that facilities implementing this guidance to keep employees safe can continue operating.

“Maintaining the health and safety of these heroic employees in order to ensure that these critical facilities can continue operating is paramount,” Perdue added. “I also want to thank the companies who are doing their best to keep their workforce safe as well as keeping our food supply sustained. USDA will continue to work with its partners across the federal government to ensure employee safety to maintain this essential industry.”