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Reprint of Article re: Trump to Order U.S. Meat Plants to Stay Open Amid Pandemic

April 28, 2020 - 5:02pm

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-04-28/trump-says-he-s-issuing-order-for-tyson-s-unique-liability  

Trump to Order U.S. Meat Plants to Stay Open Amid Pandemic

By Jennifer Jacobs

 Updated on April 28, 2020, 3:21 PM EDT

President Donald Trump plans to order meat-processing plants to remain open as the nation confronts growing food-supply disruptions from the coronavirus outbreak, a person familiar with the matter said.

Trump plans to use the Defense Production Act to order the companies to stay open as critical infrastructure, and the government will provide additional protective gear for employees as well as guidance, according to the person.

The order sets the stage for a showdown between America’s meat giants, which have been pressing to reopen plants, and some local officials and labor unions who’ve called for closures in a bid to prevent the virus from spreading. The president himself has long agitated for Americans to return to work and restore an economy crippled by social distancing measures.

Trump signaled the executive action at the White House on Tuesday, saying he planned to sign an order aimed at Tyson Foods Inc.’s liability, which had become “a road block” for the company. He didn’t elaborate.

The order, though, will not be limited to Tyson, the person said. It will affect many processing plants supplying beef, chicken, eggs and pork. Shares in Tyson and poultry producer Sanderson Farms Inc. extended gains after the news, while JBS SA, the world’s top meat producer, was little changed.

JBS’s local unit and Smithfield Foods Inc. didn’t immediately respond to calls and emails, while Tyson and Cargill Inc. said they couldn’t comment because they don’t have the executive order. Tyson did say safety remains its top priority “while we work to continue fulfilling our role of feeding families across the country."

The White House decided to make the move amid estimates that as much as 80% of U.S. meat production capacity could shut down. But a union representing plant workers accused the administration of failing to develop meaningful safety requirements that would have helped contain the disruptions.

“We only wish that this administration cared as much about the lives of working people as it does about meat, pork and poultry products,” said Stuart Appelbaum, President of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.
 

Breaking’ Chain

On Sunday, Tyson Foods Chairman John Tyson said in a blog post that the U.S. food supply chain “is breaking,” with millions of pounds of meat set to “disappear” as plants close.

Illnesses in the meat-processing industry and shifts in demand after restaurants closed have disrupted the supply chain. Dairy farmers are dumping milk that can’t be sold to processors, broiler operations have been breaking eggs to reduce supplies and some fruit and vegetables are rotting in fields amid labor and distribution disruptions.

Many low-income Americans, meanwhile, have been waiting in long lines at food banks, which have reported shortages.

Asked about the country’s food supply, Trump said: “There’s plenty of supply.”

The Defense Production Act allows the government broad power to direct industrial production in crises. Trump has previously invoked the law -- or threatened to invoke it -- in order to increase the supply of medical gear including ventilators, masks and swabs to test for coronavirus infection.

The White House has been discussing the order with meatpacking executives to determine what they need to operate safely and stay open, in order to prevent shortages, the person said.

White House General Counsel Pat Cipollone worked with private companies to design a federal mandate to keep the plants open and to provide them additional virus testing capacity as well as protective gear.