Trump executive order to keep processing plants running

U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order delegating authority under the Defense Production Act (DPA) of 1950 to keep meat and poultry plants operating amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Roy Graber Headshot
(Tyson Foods)
(Tyson Foods)

U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order delegating authority under the Defense Production Act (DPA) of 1950 to keep meat and poultry plants operating amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under the order, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is directed to ensure meat and poultry processors continue operations uninterrupted to the maximum extent possible. To ensure worker safety, these processors will continue to follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

During the past month, many meat and poultry companies have at least temporarily halted operations, citing safety reasons as workers have tested positive for COVID-19. Companies on that list include Tyson Foods, Cargill, JBS, Smithfield Foods, Empire Kosher Poultry, National Beef Packing Co., Aurora Packing, CTI Foods, Foster Farms, West Liberty Foods, Conagra and Hormel Foods subsidiaries Jennie-O Turkey Store, Alma Foods and Rochelle Foods.

According to a statement from the White House, the executive order “will further ensure that vitally important food processors are able to continue to operate safely and meet the consumer needs of the American people.”

“We’re working very hard to make sure our food supply chain is sound and plentiful,” Trump said in a press release.

A White House Fact Sheet explained that the closure of a single plant can eliminate more than 80% of a particular meat product to an entire grocery store chain, and failure to process livestock could force millions of pounds of meat to disappear from the market, potentially leading to long-term disruptions in our supply chain.

“I thank President Trump for signing this executive order and recognizing the importance of keeping our food supply chain safe, secure and plentiful. Our nation’s meat and poultry processing facilities play an integral role in the continuity of our food supply chain,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue stated.

“Maintaing the health and safety of these heroic employees in order to ensure that these critical facilities can continue operating is paramount. I also want to thank the companies who are doing the best to keep their workforce safe as well as keeping our food supply sustained. USDA will continue to work with its partners across the federal government to ensure employee safety to maintain this essential industry.”

National Chicken Council responds

Mike Brown, president of the National Chicken Council (NCC), called the signing of the executive a “bold decision to protect our country’s food supply during these unprecedented times.”

At the same time, Brown offered assurance that the poultry industry would continue to keep health and safety a high priority.

“Our industry is following all CDC, USDA and OSHA guidelines, and many have consulted with infectious disease physicians to develop site plans. Companies began weeks ago enacting additional measures to keep workers safe, such as increased cleaning and sanitation of the plants, temperature checks before entering facilities, social distancing measures, installing plastic dividers between work stations, paid leave for sick or at risk employees, issuing masks and other personal protective gear, among many others measures,” said Brown. 

“While doing everything we can to keep employees safe and healthy, the biggest challenge has been inconsistencies among the states and many localities in enforcing CDC guidelines in plants that add to confusion and can lead to unnecessary shutdowns. This patchwork approach is posing grave risk to the supply chain and threatening great disruption to NCC member companies. There must be a uniform approach across all states and we are hopeful that today’s announcement is a good first step in achieving that goal. NCC is urging states to immediately adopt CDC, OSHA and USDA guidelines for a uniform approach to first keep workers safe and keep Americans fed.”

National Turkey Federation responds

Joel Brandenberger, president of the National Turkey Federation (NTF), released the following statement on Trump’s executive order in support of continued operations of meat and poultry processing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic: “President Trump, through his executive order, will help turkey processors maintain critical operations to help feed American families during this challenging time while protecting the health and safety of the industry’s workforce. The National Turkey Federation and its members thank the president for his timely leadership during this crisis. His strong support of the nation’s turkey farmers, processors and workers allows our industry to further its mission of producing quality, nutritious turkey products for American consumers.

“The health and safety of our workforce remains a top priority. Poultry processors already are taking numerous measures to protect workers, including following CDC and OSHA guidelines for meat and poultry processing. The industry will maintain this strong focus on worker health and safety, and plants will operate in full accordance with those guidelines. The National Turkey Federation’s members are proud to produce food for the American people. The American food supply chain is strong, and the public should continue to have confidence in its resiliency.”

Other reactions

One organization to express opposition to the executive order was the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), whose membership includes poultry plant employees.

“We only wish that this administration cared as much about the lives of working people as it does about meat, pork and poultry products,” RWDSU Stuart Appelbaum said in an emailed statement. “If the administration had developed meaningful safety requirements early on as they said they should have and still must do, this would not even have become an issue. Employer and government must do better. If they want to keep the meat and poultry supply chain healthy, they need to make sure that workers are safe and healthy.”

American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall, who on April 14 was named a member of Trump’s Great American Economic Revival Industry Groups, expressed cautious optimism related to the executive order.

“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,” said Duvall.

“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.”

Colin Woodall, CEO of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), while expressing his gratitude to processing plant employees “for the work they are doing to keep food shortages from compounding the complex issues we’re facing,” hailed the president for signing the executive order.

"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,” said Woodall. “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.” 

View our continuing coverage of the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic.

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