With growing concerns of the impact the coronavirus pandemic is having on the nation's food supply, President Trump issued an executive order to keep meat plants open. Trump invoked the 1950s Defense Production Act, designating meat plants as critical infrastructure for the protection of the nation's food supply.
USDA will be responsible for implementing the executive order by working with meat companies to make certain they follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidance and work with state and local officials to make certain the plants are allowed to operate.
The executive order states, "It is important that processors of beef, pork and poultry ('meat and poultry') in the food supply chain continue operating and fulfilling orders to ensure a continued supply of protein for Americans."
It also mentions that actions taken by some states to close plants may differ from the CDC and OSHA's guidance, "Meat and Poultry Processing Workers and Employers," stating "Such closures threaten the continued functioning of the national meat and poultry supply chain, undermining critical infrastructure during the national emergency."
It's estimated at least 20 packing plants have been closed by state or local governments or have reduced capacity during April. The executive order will provide a consistent policy at the federal, state and local levels. If a plant is following the CDC and OSHA guidelines issued last weekend, local and state governments may not be able to close the plant.
With more plants closing or running at limited capacity, there is growing concern the impact this is having on the nation's food supply. In addition, many livestock producers are not able to market their animals in a timely manner. There are more and more reports of producers euthanizing their animals due to the lack of plant space. Earlier this week it was estimated that hog slaughter was down 32% and cattle slaughter was down 31%.
Concerns are being raised by some members of Congress and unions on how the executive order will protect workers inside the plants.
Reaction from the industry, producers and unions
The North American Meat Institute: "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."
The National Pork Producers Council: "While getting pork packing plants back online is foundational, the tragic reality is that millions of hogs can't enter the food supply. We need coordinated partnership between the industry and federal, state and local authorities to euthanize pigs in an orderly, ethical and safe way."
The United Food and Commercial Workers: "While we share the concern over the food supply, today's executive order to force meatpacking plants to stay open must put the safety of our country's meatpacking workers first. Simply put, we cannot have a secure food supply without the safety of these workers. We urge the administration to immediately enact clear and enforceable safety standards that compel all meatpacking companies to provide the highest level of protective equipment through access to the federal stockpile of PPE, ensure daily testing is available for workers and their communities, enforce physical distancing at all plants, and provide full paid sick leave for any workers who are infected. Additionally, to protect the food supply and ensure these safety standards for workers are enforced, these plants must be constantly monitored by federal inspectors, and workers must have access to representation to ensure their rights are not violated."
National Farmers Union: "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."
Protect food supply workers
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and 35 other Senators are asking the administration to take all necessary actions to ensure the safety of the nation's food supply and protect essential workers in the food supply chain.
In a letter to Vice President Mike Pence, the Senators say, "The severe shortages of adequate COVID-19 testing capability and personal protective equipment are exacerbating these problems. Lack of access to tests and personal protective equipment leaves essential food supply workers at even higher risk and makes the virus more likely to spread, harming more workers and further damaging our food supply chain."
The Senators asked the administration and federal agencies to coordinate with state and local governments and the private sector to take "aggressive action" to protect essential workers and protect the nation's food supply.
More aid needed for agriculture
Even before the funds are distributed from USDA's recently announced, "Coronavirus Food Assistance Program," agricultural organizations and commodity groups are calling on Congress and the administration to provide additional aid for agriculture.
Legislation has been introduced by Congressman Austin Scott (R-GA) and others to provide an additional $50 billion. Congressman Collin Peterson (D-MN), chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, is calling on the spending limits for the Commodity Credit Corp. be raised to $68 billion. This would be the amount if the current $30 billion limit established in 1985 had been indexed for inflation.
USMCA to go into effect July 1
The U.S. Trade Representative informed Congress that the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement will go into effect on July 1. All three countries have taken the necessary measures to comply with their commitments under USMCA.
USTR Robert Lighthizer says, "The crisis and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates that now, more than ever, the United States should strive to increase manufacturing capacity and investment in North America. The USMCA's entry into force is a landmark achievement in that effort."
Coronavirus rural task force
Members of the House and Senate are asking USDA to establish a "Rural COVID-19 Task Force" which would identify challenges facing rural America, develop strategies and policy recommendations, and develop a guide of available federal programs and resources to help rural communities in their efforts to deal with COVID-19.
The letter was organized by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Congressmen Antonio Delgado (D-NY) and Xochitl Torres Small (D-NM).