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USDA outlines expectations for meat processors

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue sends letters to governors, industry stakeholders regarding Trump executive order that keeps processing plants open

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue sent letters on May 5 to state governors and meat industry stakeholders to “establish expectations for the implementation” of President Donald Trump’s executive order directing meat processing facilities to stay open during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Trump invoked the Defense Production Act in the executive order he signed on April 28 to keep the U.S. food supply chain operational during the pandemic, even as COVID-19 outbreaks hit meat processing facilities across the nation.

“I understand that state and local leaders are working diligently to protect and maintain the well-being of their citizens, including those who work on the front lines in critical industries, such as meat and poultry processing,” Perdue said in his letter to governors. “It is essential that we work together to ensure the health and safety of those who help keep food on the table during this unprecedented time.”

Perdue told the governors that he has directed meat and poultry processors to utilize the guidance issued on April 26 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) “ to implement practices and protocols for staying operational or resuming operations while safeguarding the health of the workers and the community.”

CDC’s guidance reiterates that meat and poultry processing facilities are part of the nation’s critical infrastructure and that CDC “advises that critical infrastructure workers may be permitted to continue work following potential exposure to COVID-19, provided they remain asymptomatic and additional precautions are implemented to protect them and the community.” CDC recommends facilities take measures to reduce COVID-19 risks. Specifically, the new guidance reiterates many already identified mitigation measures including social distancing, engineering controls to minimize potential contact, protective gear and face coverings, shift staggering, health screenings, training and awareness, and financial incentives not to report to work sick. 

In his letter to industry stakeholders, Perdue said plants that have closed should resume operation as soon as they are able after implementing the guidance.

“Meat and poultry processing plants contemplating reductions of operations or recently closed since Friday, May 1, and without a clear timetable for near term resumption of operations, should submit written documentation of their operations and health and safety protocol developed based on the CDC/OSHA guidance to USDA at,” the letter said. “USDA will continue to work with plants, the CDC, OSHA, and state, tribal and local officials to ensure facilities are implementing practices consistent with the guidance to keep employees safe and continue operations.”

Perdue also said in his letters that “further action under the executive order and the Defense Production Act is under consideration and will be taken if necessary,” without elaborating on what the further action would be.

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