WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Tuesday to use the Defense Production Act to compel meat processing plants to stay open amid the coronavirus pandemic, and he will provide liability protections, according to three sources familiar with the plan.
"The reason for this EO is there were discussions among certain processing companies (Tysons, for example) to keep only 20% of facilities open. The vast majority of processing plans could have shut down, reducing processing capacity in the country by as much as 80%," an administration official explained in a message to NBC News.
Trump's plans to order plants to remain open were first reported by Bloomberg News.
"We have had some difficulty where they are having a liability where it's really unfair to them," Trump said at a small-business event at the White House on Tuesday afternoon. "I fully understand that it's not their fault."
The president also mentioned the executive order during an event in the Oval Office earlier Tuesday, telling reporters, "We're going to sign an executive order today, I believe, and that will solve any liability problems."
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Trump, who said he was "working with Tyson, which is one of the big companies in that world," on the order, described the problem as "sort of a legal roadblock more than anything else."
Despite concerns about the food supply chain, Trump reassured Americans that there is "plenty of supply."
It is unclear what "liability problems" Trump will address, but the executive order has created a clash between meat companies and labor unions.
"We only wish that this administration cared as much about the lives of working people as it does about meat, pork and poultry products," Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said in a statement.
"When poultry plants shut down, it's for deep cleaning and to save workers' lives. If the administration had developed meaningful safety requirements early on as they should have and still must do, this would not even have become an issue," Appelbaum said. "Employers 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."
Meat plant workers, who kill, cut and package poultry and beef in close quarters, have called for plant closures during the coronavirus outbreak. Unions and advocacy groups have also called for plants that are staying open to do more to protect employees.
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Diana Dietz, a spokeswoman for the American Association of Meat Processors, said, "Plants have already been taking preventative measures and screening employees."
She said there are several practices processors should implement to reduce the risk of exposure to employees, including:
- Having workers wear personal protective equipment.
- Ensuring proper spacing in work areas and break rooms.
- Considering staggering work stations so employees don't face one other and splitting shifts to reduce the number of workers in a plant.
- Increasing the frequency of cleaning and sanitation in the production areas in their plants.
Tyson Foods was forced to close a pork processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa, last week after more than 180 infections were linked to the plant. The company warned that closing the plant, which accounts for nearly 4 percent of U.S. pork processing capacity, would have a significant impact on the food supply chain.
Several other plants have temporarily closed after virus outbreaks, including a Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and a JBS USA plant in Worthington, Minnesota.
Four employees of a Tyson Foods poultry plant in southwest Georgia died in April after having been infected.
An administration official said the White House would work with the Labor Department "to provide safety standards and guidance for workers to make sure they are kept safe and not put in harm's way as they serve the public."
In a statement following Trump's signing of the executive order, Tyson said, "We appreciate the administration's efforts to help the food supply chain and we remain committed to protecting the safety of our team members as we continue our efforts to keep feeding American families."