Trump executive order to keep food plants open meets mixed reactions
The White House late Tuesday released President Donald Trump’s executive order invoking the Defense Production Act to keep food plants open.
The order says, “Under the delegation of authority provided in this order, the secretary of Agriculture shall 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 [the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and OSHA [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration].
But reaction to the order has been mixed.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said, “Farmers, as well as the entire food system, are suffering from the rippling effects of plant closures due to COVID-19. I thank President Trump for declaring the importance of keeping America’s meat and poultry processing system functional and providing more protective gear and support for employees.”
House Agriculture Committee ranking member Michael Conaway, R-Texas, said, “With today’s decision to keep meat-processing plants running, President Trump is showing once again that he understands the critical importance of American agriculture. I thank the president for seeking solutions that not only protect the health and safety of the hardworking men and women in these essential positions, but lessen the hardship for our farmers, ranchers, and consumers. During this incredibly difficult time, American agriculture has gone above and beyond to keep our nation fed and clothed, and I could not be more grateful to these American heroes.”
Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said, “President Trump’s executive order to require meat and poultry producers to continue operations ignores the health and safety realities of this pandemic. The coronavirus is not impressed with a presidential order, and neither are the workers who are risking their lives working shoulder to shoulder on meat processing lines. If the Trump administration would make a national commitment to serious testing and worker protection instead of a mindless mandate, we could bring this valuable sector of our economy back to life.”
House Agriculture Livestock and Foreign Agriculture Subcommittee Chairman Jim Costa, D-Calif., said, “In carrying out this executive order, the administration must ensure the health and safety of workers and provide all the resources necessary to do so. Our beef, pork, and poultry processing facilities are essential infrastructure, and I have long said our food supply is a national security issue.”
Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Hoeven, R-N.D., said, “The president invoked the DPA to help minimize disruptions in the food supply chain. This action underscores the vital service of all those who work to ensure access to our nation’s high-quality food supply. From our farmers and ranchers to food processing plant workers, truck drivers and grocery store clerks, we are grateful for all of their hard work to put food on American tables. By keeping these plants operating safely, we are benefiting both consumers and producers, while also taking important steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In our efforts with the administration and industry, we have prioritized access to personal protective equipment, testing, and social distancing guidelines to maintain a safe work environment while meeting this essential need for our nation.”
Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., noted that he had sent Trump a letter urging him to invoke the DPA to keep the plants open and said, “I’m pleased the president took this necessary action to make certain our food supply chain can continue to provide food to American families during this time of crisis. I’ll continue to work with the administration and stakeholders to protect the health of our food processing workers, and get idle plants up and running as quickly as possible.”
The American Farm Bureau Federation was cautious in its reaction.
American Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall said, “The COVID-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented crisis for American farmers. Farmers and ranchers face the heartbreaking decision to euthanize animals because of plant closures. 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.”
National Farmers Union President Rob Larew said, “Though National Farmers Union shares the president’s concerns around maintaining food system infrastructure, the organization is equally concerned with the health and wellbeing of meat plant employees.”
Larew explained that, even though “meat processing facilities are critical for farmers’ livelihoods and national food security” and that the organization “is immensely worried about the financial implications for rural communities and the nutritional and economic implications for American consumers,” efforts to address these issues “should not occur at the expense of meat plant workers. These workers work in close quarters and often lack access to appropriate protective equipment or paid sick leave, making them among the most vulnerable to coronavirus. More than 4,000 have tested positive for the virus, and at least 19 have died. Their health and lives are not an acceptable tradeoff for our meat supply, nor are these things mutually exclusive – we must find solutions that protect both.
“Most immediately, meat plant workers need personal protective equipment and other safeguards, access to testing and treatment, and paid sick leave. But in the longer-term, we need to completely rethink this economic model. Both the abuses that workers are enduring as well as the disruptions farmers and consumers are experiencing are a direct result of extreme consolidation in the meat industry. The good news is that the best mechanism to secure our food supply and protect workers is one and the same: antitrust enforcement. National Farmers Union has been calling for greater oversight for years, to little avail. We hope that this current crisis finally compels Congress and the administration to address the issue of market power in the agriculture industry and promote a diverse and resilient food system.”
National Pork Producers Council President Howard “A.V.” Roth, a producer from Wauzeka, Wis., said, “We are thankful for the support extended by our federal, state and local government leaders. As we all work together to protect workers and the nation’s food supply, we need uniform and consistent solutions and all available resources to address this unprecedented crisis. We thank President Trump for taking this step.
“We must safely stabilize the current plant capacity challenge and overcome other major hurdles facing the nation’s pork production system, one that employs 550,000 workers and generates $23 billion in personal income across rural America. Hog values have plummeted to virtually zero, and hog farmers are facing liquidation of their farms and other assets without immediate relief, including expanded financial aid without payment limitations.
“While getting pork packing plants back online is foundational, the tragic reality is that millions of hogs can’t enter the food supply,” Roth added. “We need coordinated partnership between the industry and federal, state and local authorities to euthanize pigs in an orderly, ethical and safe way.”
The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association said, “The action taken by President Trump will help keep the beef supply chain intact, ensure beef remains available to consumers and ultimately provide the food that American consumers will need to reopen the nation.”
NCBA CEO Colin Woodall said, “While there are currently no widespread shortages of beef, we are seeing supply chain disruptions because of plant closures and reductions in the processing speed at many, if not most, beef processing plants in the United States. We thank President Trump for his recognition of the problem and the action he has taken today to begin correcting it. American consumers rely on a safe, steady supply of food, and President Trump understands the importance of keeping cattle and beef moving to ensure agriculture continues to operate at a time when the nation needs it most.”
“We understand and appreciate the difficulties facing processing plant workers during this crisis,” said Woodall. “Processing plant employees play a role that is critical to the security of this nation, and America’s cattle producers offer their sincere gratitude for the work they are doing to keep food shortages from compounding the complex issues we’re facing.”
North American Meat Institute President and CEO Julie Anna Potts said, “By keeping meat and poultry producers operating, the president’s executive order will help avert hardship for agricultural producers and keep safe, affordable food on the tables of American families. The safety of the heroic men and women working in the meat and poultry industry is the first priority. And as it is assured, facilities should be allowed to re-open. We are grateful to the president for acting to protect our nation’s food supply chain.”
NAMI also said, “The industry has and will continue to implement the Centers for Disease Control and Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidance released Sunday. These measures include: testing, temperature checks, face coverings, social distancing of employees where possible and much more. To support employees, many Meat Institute members are raising pay, offering bonuses, providing paid sick leave and increasing health benefits.”
R-CALF USA supported the move. “Until this current crisis is over, and the President and Congress can conduct such a review and develop such a strategic plan, our nation must administer triage to ensure that our highly centralized and concentrated beef processing system keeps providing our citizens with nutritious food. We simply must keep the current system running through this crisis,” said R-CALF USA CEO Bill Bullard.
USCA offered support as well. “As we see farmers and ranchers forced to make difficult decisions this week due to that reduction in slaughter capacity, we are appreciative of the President’s decision to step in and ensure the safety and security of the food supply chain,” said their president, Brooke Miller.
“Further, USCA encourages employers to consider the health of their employees first and foremost during this global pandemic. All OSHA and CDC guidelines should be strictly adhered to, and consideration for hazard pay should be given to these essential employees for the work they are performing under extenuating circumstances. We are exceptionally grateful to these front line individuals for continuing to show up everyday to provide Americans with a safe, abundant food supply.”
The Food and Environment Reporting Network noted that 85 meatpacking and food processing facilities have reported COVID-19 cases and that jurisdictions near plants have some of the highest rates of coronavirus cases.
FERN also noted that animal rights groups criticized the executive order.
–The Hagstrom Report, edited
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