Workers demand coronavirus protection as Trump orders meatpacking plants to stay open

Christopher Wilson
·Senior Writer
·6 min read

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents 1.3 million food and retail workers, responded to an order by President Trump by stating that if the plants are to remain open then employees need access to the federal stockpile of personal protective equipment (PPE) and to daily testing.

On Tuesday, Trump announced that he would use the Defense Production Act to keep meatpacking facilities open, further raising safety concerns for workers and the surrounding communities, which have already become hot spots for the coronavirus.

“To combat this crisis and ensure the adequate availability of food for the American people, it is vital that these processors are able to remain operating at this critical moment, while also taking steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in their facilities,” read the order.

More than 20 meatpacking plants have closed temporarily under pressure from local authorities and their own workers because of the virus, including two of the nation’s largest, in Iowa and South Dakota. Other facilities have seen production slow as workers fall ill, quarantine themselves because of exposure to the virus or stay home out of concern for their families’ health.

Plant workers at the Beef Products facility in South Sioux City, Neb.
Plant workers at the Beef Products facility in South Sioux City, Neb., in 2012. (Lane Hickenbottom/Reuters)

“To protect America’s food supply, America’s meatpacking workers must be protected,” said UFCW International president Marc Perrone in a statement. “The reality is that these workers are putting their lives on the line every day to keep our country fed during this deadly outbreak, and at least 20 meatpacking workers have tragically died from coronavirus while more than 5,000 workers have been hospitalized or are showing symptoms. For the sake of all our families, we must prioritize the safety and security of these workers.”

A report published last week by USA Today and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting found that more than 150 of America’s largest meat processing plants operate in counties where the rate of coronavirus infection is among the nation’s highest. The analysis found that these facilities represent more than 1 in 3 of the nation’s biggest beef, pork and poultry processing plants and that rates of infection around these plants are higher than those of 75 percent of other U.S. counties. Experts have found no evidence that the virus has been spread to consumers through meat.

Tyson Foods took out a full-page ad in a number of newspapers Sunday defending its response to the outbreak and warning that “the supply chain is breaking.”

“We have a responsibility to feed our country. It is as essential as healthcare. This is a challenge that should not be ignored,” John H. Tyson, chairman of the company, wrote. “Our plants must remain operational so that we can supply food to our families in America. This is a delicate balance because Tyson Foods places team member safety as our top priority.”

The following day, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., sent a letter to Tyson criticizing it for keeping a facility open in Washington state. Per Murray, the plant in Wallula had 34 confirmed cases of the virus on April 13 but did not announce a temporary closure until April 23.

“The more than 1,400 employees in Wallula, the countless members of the surrounding communities, and the millions of consumers of Tyson’s products deserve a swifter and more comprehensive response to the COVID-19 outbreak than they have experienced this far,” Murray wrote.

The Wallula plant isn’t the only major hub to see outbreaks increase. A Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., had more than 700 workers test positive for the virus and at least two die. The plant, which the company says is responsible for 4 to 5 percent of all pork production nationwide, shut down indefinitely earlier this month under pressure from the mayor and the state’s Republican governor, who had resisted broader shutdown measures. Smithfield CEO Ken Sullivan said the ripple effects of closing plants would eventually hit grocery store shelves.

“The closure of this facility, combined with a growing list of other protein plants that have shuttered across our industry, is pushing our country perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply,” said Sullivan. “It is impossible to keep our grocery stores stocked if our plants are not running.”

Employees wear face masks at a meat packing plant
Employees at the JBS USA meat packing plant in Greeley, Colo., where two staff members have died of COVID-19, as it remained operational on April 8. (Jim Urquhart/Reuters)

In Iowa, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds declined to order the closure of hog processing plants despite the spread of the coronavirus in the communities where they are located. Black Hawk County, where one plant is located, reported more than 900 COVID-19 cases and at least 12 deaths. The county health director characterized the rise in cases as a “surge.” Tyson announced April 22 that it was indefinitely suspending operations at the plant.

“I can’t speak on behalf of Tyson or Gov. Reynolds, but I do know that we here at Black Hawk County have seen the surge because of Tyson,” the county’s public health director, Nifissa Cisse-Egbuonye, said last week. “At the moment I can confirm 151 cases from Tyson. But we’ve been ... we are still backlogged in terms of just our investigation, but we know the bulk of it are Tyson-related.”

Reynolds said the state’s plants are essential businesses and must stay open.

“We should all be working on finding solutions to making sure that we are doing infectious control policies, that we’re making sure that the workforce is protected and, most importantly, that we’re keeping that food supply chain moving,” said Reynolds.

In the letter Sunday, Tyson also warned that some animals would be “depopulated” — killed, but not processed. On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that an Allen Harim Foods plant in Delaware had done just that, killing 2 million chickens during April owing to a lack of workers to process them. A Politico report last week highlighted how, due to poor coordination from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, farmers left millions of pounds of food to rot while demand at food banks soared.

Will the closures and slowdowns result in empty grocery store shelves? The USDA reported millions of pounds of frozen meat in reserve but that slaughter of cattle and chicken were both down by double digits from this time last year. An additional concern is that the farms that supply meat to the plants, already in a tough position, could be forced to close if the market remains slowed or stalled. Experts say a spike in price and scarcities of some items should be expected but not necessarily empty shelves.

“We have so much food in America and we have so much choice that I am not worried that there will not be enough food,” Julie Niederhoff, an associate professor of supply chain management at Syracuse University, told CNN. “There might not be enough of one particular brand, or one particular cut, but that the state of our food supply chain, in general, is robust. The state of some specific items within that supply chain is vulnerable, and it's at risk.”

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