Meat plant employees need to be protected

Legislative Watch: Protect plant workers; liability protection requested; beef, packing investigations; Trump thanked for executive order; commodities purchased; U.S.-U.K. start negotiations; Happy Birthday House Ag Committee.

P. Scott Shearer, Vice President

May 8, 2020

5 Min Read
Work safety sign
Getty Images/iStockphoto

Now that President Trump has issued an executive order to keep meat plants open, nearly 50 U.S. Representatives are asking the administration what steps it will take to keep plant employees protected during the coronavirus pandemic.

In a letter to the secretaries of Agriculture, Labor, and Health and Human Services, the Representatives says, "Neither the executive order nor the subsequent press release issued by the Department of Agriculture contain information about coordination between federal agencies to provide PPE or plans to increase coronavirus testing for plant employees and the surrounding communities." They pointed out that according to the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, over 6,500 employees at meat processing plants have either tested positive or gone into self-quarantine, and 20 workers have died since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

The members ask a series of questions including what was the timetable for all employees to receive personal protection equipment; what enforcement will be used to make certain the plants are following Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines; will there be increased testing at the plants; and how is the federal government coordinating with companies, employees, local communities, and state and local health departments.

The letter was organized by Reps. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO) and Marcia Fudge (D-OH).

A group of 16 Senators are demanding President Trump amend his recent executive order to keep meat plants operating are permitted to "reopen only" after they have met all of the health and safety guidelines issued by OSHA and the CDC.

In a letter to Trump, the Senators say, "Without immediate, comprehensive intervention by the federal government to ensure the health and safety of workers at these plants, workers in the meat processing industry will remain at extremely high risk of contracting the virus and the plants will continue to be a major vector of significant infection. Failure to take action to protect these workers is not only a threat to their lives, but also to the public health of their communities."

Organizers of the letter were Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Jack Reed (D-RI).

Request for liability protection for companies open during COVID-19
A coalition of over 200 trade associations is asking Congress to provide liability protection for companies that have stayed open during the pandemic.

The associations say in a letter to the House and Senate leadership, "By providing limited and rational safe harbors for good actors, Congress can help ensure that the critical needs of the American people are met during this time of crisis and enable the continued operation of critical infrastructure."

Those signing the letter include the American Farm Bureau Federation, National Pork Producers Council, National Chicken Council, North American Meat Institute, National Association of Wheat Growers, Beer Institute and The Fertilizer Institute.

Trump asks DOJ to investigate cattle industry
After 11 state attorneys general asked the Department of Justice to investigate concentration and potential anticompetitive practices by packers in the cattle industry, President Trump directed the DOJ to move forward with the investigation.

The state attorneys general in the letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr say, "Given the concentrated market structure of the beef industry, it may be particularly susceptible to market manipulation, particularly during times of food insecurity, such as the current COVID-19 crisis." They note the disparity between the price of live cattle and the retail cost of beef to consumers saying, "live cattle futures recently hit 18-year lows, while both the price of boxed beef and consumer demand remain healthy."

The states signing the letter were North Dakota, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming.

FTC asked to investigate concentration in meat packing
Sens. Josh Hawley (R-MO) and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) are asking the Federal Trade Commission to conduct an antitrust investigation into the meatpacking industry regarding anticompetitive behavior due to concentration of the industry.

In a letter to the FTC, the Senators say, "As a result, farmers cannot process their livestock — which are costly to maintain — and consumers risk seeing shortages at grocery stores, exacerbating the food insecurity that all too many Americans are currently experiencing. These harms might have been mitigated if the meatpacking industry was less concentrated. The current COVID-19 crisis has exposed the vulnerabilities of American supply chains and the importance of ensuring that, when disaster strikes, America's food supplies are not in the hands of a few, mostly foreign-based firms."

Producers and industry thank Trump for executive order
Producer groups and the meat industry thanked President Trump for issuing the executive order to keep plants open during the coronavirus pandemic.

The letter says, "Feeding Americans is a non-partisan issue, and we are proud to work with our nation's leaders to avert major supply chain disruptions and hardships for hundreds of thousands farmers and ranchers across the country and keep safe, affordable food on the plates of millions of Americans."

Those signing the letter were the American Farm Bureau Federation, National Cattlemen's Beef Association, National Chicken Council, National Pork Producers Council, National Turkey Federation and North American Meat Institute.

USDA announces $470 million commodity purchases
USDA will be purchasing an additional $470 million in commodity purchases this year. This is in addition to purchases already announced. The products are pork, dairy, chicken, turkey, catfish, seafood, asparagus, orange juice, pears, potatoes, prunes, raisins, strawberries, sweet potatoes and tart cherries.

The commodities will be distributed to food banks, schools and others to help people in need.

U.S. and UK begin trade negotiations
The United States and the United Kingdom this week officially began negotiations on a trade agreement.

In a joint statement, U.S. Trade Ambassador Robert Lighthizer and UK Secretary of State for International Trade Elizabeth Truss say, "An FTA is a priority for both countries and we share a commitment to secure an ambitious agreement that significantly boosts trade and investment. We will undertake negotiations at an accelerated pace and have committed the resources necessary to progress at a fast pace."

The United States is the largest economy in the world and the United Kingdom is fifth. Two-way trade between the countries is $269 billion.

House Agriculture Committee 200-years-old
The House Agriculture Committee was established 200 years ago this week on May 3. The first chairman was Thomas Forrest of Pennsylvania. There were seven members on the first committee. The Senate Agriculture Committee was established in 1825.

Source: P. Scott Shearer, who is solely responsible for the information provided, and wholly owns the information. Informa Business Media and all its subsidiaries are not responsible for any of the content contained in this information asset.

About the Author(s)

P. Scott Shearer

Vice President, Bockorny Group, Inc.

Scott Shearer is vice president of the Bockorny Group Inc., a leading bipartisan government affairs consulting firm in Washington, D.C. With more than 30 years experience in government and corporate relations in state and national arenas, he is recognized as a leader in agricultural trade issues, having served as co-chairman of the Agricultural Coalition for U.S.-China Trade and co-chairman of the Agricultural Coalition for Trade Promotion Authority. Scott was instrumental in the passage of China Permanent Normal Trade Relations and TPA. He is past chairman of the USDA-USTR Agricultural Technical Advisory Committee for Trade in Animals and Animal Products and was a member of the USAID Food Security Advisory Committee. Prior to joining the Bockorny Group, Scott served as director of national relations for Farmland Industries Inc., as well as USDA’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Congressional Affairs (1993-96), serving as liaison for the Secretary of Agriculture and the USDA to Congress.

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