Trump Invokes Defense Production Act to Force Meat Plants to Stay Open During Coronavirus Outbreak

President Donald Trump signed an executive order invoking the Defense Production Act to designate meat-processing plants as critical infrastructure that must maintain operations during the coronavirus pandemic on Tuesday.

According to a White House official, the order was prompted by discussions among a number of large meat producers regarding plans to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in their facilities by shutting down as much of 80 percent of their processing plants. This would leave roughly 20 percent of the meat processing plants in the country to feed the entire U.S. population.

"We're gonna sign an executive order today, I believe, and that'll solve any liability problems, where they have certain liability problems, and we'll be in very good shape. We're working with Tyson, which is one of the big companies in that world, and we always work with the farmers. There's plenty of supply, as you know, it's distribution, and we will probably have that solved today. It was a very unique circumstances because of liability," Trump said Tuesday afternoon, a few hours prior to signing the executive order.

Plants are already starting to close and Smithfield Foods, the leading consumer packaged meat company, has already shuttered doors in Cudahy, Wisconsin, Martin City, Missouri, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Most recently, the company announced it was "proactively" suspending operations at the Monmouth, Illinois, facility after a portion of its 1,700 employees tested positive. The Monmouth plant accounts for about 3 percent of America's fresh pork supplies and Sioux Falls supplies nearly 130 million servings per week, according to the company.

Tyson, a meat-producing powerhouse, also closed a number of facilities in recent weeks, including a Pasco, Washington, beef facility and pork plants in Waterloo, Iowa, and Logansport, Indiana, so workers could undergo coronavirus testing.

On April 20, Nafissa Cisse Egbuonye, health director of Black Hawk County, Iowa, said 90 percent of the then-356 cases in the county were tied to Waterloo plant workers. In the week since the county has seen cases increase to 1,346, but without test results, she said on Monday she could not determine how many were linked to Tyson.

donald trump defense production act meat coronavirus
A man shops in the meat section at a grocery store on Tuesday in Washington, D.C. On Tuesday, Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to require meat plants to maintain operations during the coronavirus outbreak. Drew Angerer/Getty

The Pasco plant's closure makes for a "complicated situation across the supply chain" as it means reduced food supplies and creates problems for farmers who have "no place for their livestock." It produces enough beef in one day to feed four million people and Steve Stouffer, group president of Tyson Fresh Meats, said in the statement, that the company was working with local health officials to resume operations once it can be deemed safe.

In response to concerns about food workers' safety, a White House official told Newsweek the Department of Labor and Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia would be working to develop safety standards to ensure that workers at meat processing plants are not put in harm's way as they continue to keep up the nation's food supply.

The official added that the Trump administration is considering whether to provide specific guidance for meatpacking workers who are most at risk of developing "severe complications" due to COVID-19.

"For example, for a processing plant worker that is over 65, or one that has pre-existing health conditions that put them at a greater risk, we would work with the Department of Labor to issue guidance strongly suggesting they stay at home," the official said.

Despite the pandemic, Trump's publicly defended America's response and denied the country was having any problems with food shortages. On Monday, he retweeted a post from The Counter, a nonprofit digital food news outlet, that said there was "no shortage of meat destined for the grocery store shelf."

It may take longer to restock shelves due to supply chain disruptions, but The Counter claimed there were "many millions" of pounds of meat in cold storage and the frozen stockpile would make up for any problems with short term processing.

The Counter's Twitter thread was in response to a full-page ad Tyson published in the New York Times, Washington Post and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. In the ad, Tyson Foods Chairman John Tyson wrote the "food supply chain is vulnerable" and having to shutter doors in communities nationwide meant "millions of pounds of meat will disappear from the supply chain."

Under the Defense Production Act, the federal government has increased control over industrial production during an emergency. The president initially rejected calls for to invoke it but gave in in late March to ensure adequate manufacturing of ventilators and to fight hoarding and price gouging of personal protection equipment. His predecessors have used it on numerous occasions, although it's rarely been invoked for anything having to do with the food supply chain.

Trump signed the order, a White House official said, because he and his advisers feel that this is a "critical time" in the COVID-19 pandemic when "a key part of the food supply chain was at risk of substantially reducing capacity." By requiring processing plants to stay open, they're provided the liability protection they need to remain operational.

But the official said there is "not as much" concern about Americans contracting COVID-19 through food as there is about workers contracting the disease from each other, which is why the administration is issuing guidance through the Labor Department.

"We see it as an urgent need and there should not be a panic on food supply at a moment when our country is embarking on the path of recovery from the fallout of COVID," the official said. "Just like our healthcare workers, first responders, law enforcement, and janitors go in each and every day as a part of America's critical infrastructure, our food supply too is also a part of our critical infrastructure."