U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order last week that he said would keep meat processing plants open.
This, at a time when coronavirus infections have led to at least 16 meat plant closures and more than 4,000 sick employees.
But what exactly will the order do?
Well, Trump invoked the 1950 Defense Production Act in his order — which allows the president to direct private companies to aid in the national defense.
The act has been used for emergency preparedness, recovery from terrorist attacks and natural disasters.
Let’s take a look at the actual text of the order.
The executive order only cites Section 101 of the DPA which is about giving priority to government contracts and orders.
This allows sustaining the meat and poultry industry to be considered part of the national defense.
It would require that meat processing companies fulfill government contracts first — and “to allocate materials, services, and facilities” as deemed necessary.
So despite what some have said — Trump is not forcing meat plants to stay open.
University of Texas law professor Steve Vladeck wrote on Twitter:
“Putting aside the sensational and alarming headlines, this EO (executive order) actually seems fairly uncontroversial.”
The law mainly seems aimed at getting personal protective equipment to meat processing companies.
In fact, after the order was signed, Smithfield Foods – the largest pork producer in the world – issued a public statement essentially saying that:
“The company believes that the executive order will provide priority assistance in securing an ongoing supply of critical PPE, as well as aid the company in securing broader COVID-19 testing for its employees.”
Law Professor Deborah Pearlstein interpreted it this way on Twitter:
“So if the Ag Sec thinks it’s more important for, say, meat packers to have latex gloves to ensure the safe packaging of meat, he could order that meat packers’ contracts to buy, say, latex gloves, take priority over hospitals or any other potential purchaser of latex gloves.”
After the executive order was signed, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Department of Labor also issued some clarifications.
In a statement, officials recommended that meat and poultry workers can continue to work at their plants provided they are “asymptomatic” of COVID-19 and additional precautions are in place to protect them and that employers should adhere to their federal guidance on protecting workers from the coronavirus.
The statement also said that the executive order prevents state and local governments from forcing the closure of such plants.
So the president can’t force the plants to open, and the states can’t force them to close.
But is there really a meat shortage in the U.S.?
Meat slaughters have indeed declined significantly in April, from about 2.7 million slaughters on March 28 to about 2 million on April 25.
But there’s actually plenty of meat in the U.S. in frozen storage facilities.
The Department of Agriculture reported in April that the U.S. stock of frozen meat is up from last year.
There were 622 million pounds of pork in storage as of March 31, up 2% from last year.
Frozen beef was also higher — with 502 million pounds in storage, up from 452 million last year.
Food industry expert Amanda Little wrote: “Meat companies have large reserves of product in cold storage that can temporarily fulfill consumer demand while the plants remain offline. Forcing coronavirus-affected meat plants to stay open is hardly the solution to an emerging crisis — instead, it will only deepen it.”
One of the biggest concerns with Trump’s order his how it will impact meat plant workers, many of whom are immigrants who make an average of $13 an hour.
Unions have objected to the order saying that they need assurances that their factories are safe to work in and not force companies to rush to reopen.
The unions also worry that Trump’s order will prevent their ability to sue companies for costs related to their illnesses.
Some legal experts have said the order doesn’t protect companies from lawsuits.
It’s not entirely clear, but OSHA and Labor Dept. did weigh in on this.
Their statement also said that if a company has shown good faith in following federal guidance to comply with Trump’s executive order, and is sued by employees, the government would consider participating in the lawsuit in support of companies.
But, it also said that if companies have not taken good faith steps in following their guidance on meat processing during the pandemic, they would consider joining workers in their claims if they sued the company.
This debate about keeping meat-processing plants open is likely to intensify as the pandemic continues in the United States.
Some are asking, is it worth the risk of putting workers in harm’s way – just to ensure that meat is available?