ST. PAUL — President Donald Trump's decision to order the reopening of meat processing plants around the region, which had been shuttered due to coronavirus outbreaks among workers, generated calls of approval and of concern, Tuesday, April 28.
Comments from Midwest governors, congressional delegates, agriculture and labor officials came as Trump was anticipated to issue an executive order requiring meat processing plants around the country to remain open or reopen. At least 16 plants in the region have reported workers tested positive for COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, and seven remained closed Tuesday afternoon.
Trump said his order was meant to prevent a food supply chain crisis and reduce the financial and ethical strain on farmers who were expected to euthanize tens of thousands of animals without a place for them to be processed. He invoked the Defense Production Act to justify the order and said the federal government would provide additional personal protective equipment to plant workers as part of the plan.
State and labor leaders around the Midwest received the news with mixed reviews and didn't immediately offer plans for when and how the facilities could restart their work slaughtering and processing tens of thousands of animals each day.
In Minnesota, health leaders said the move to reopen the facilities could broaden COVID-19 hot spots if they're asked to open without putting in place adequate strategies to keep workers safe.
“It seems problematic to say the least,” state Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said. "It seems counterintuitive on the level of what’s happening with the outbreak.”
Prior to the order, U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released guidance to help plants prevent outbreaks, including screening workers for symptoms, boosting social distancing and hygiene efforts and altering workplace practices. States have also issued guidance of their own to mitigate COVID-19's spread among workers and others in their communities.
Leaders at the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), which represents workers at many food processing plants, had called on plant managers and the federal government to do more to protect workers by granting them first responder status.
"Temporary first responder status ensures these workers have priority access to the COVID-19 testing and protective equipment they need to continue doing these essential jobs," UFCW President Marc Perrone said in a news release. "Our federal leaders must enforce clear guidelines to ensure every employer lives up to the high safety standards these workers deserve and the American people expect."
A spokesman for Gov. Tim Walz said the governor viewed the food processing sector as essential and said building in safety protocols is critical for plant workers. The governor was set to review the order when it became publicly available.
Walz was scheduled to appear at a news conference in Worthington Wednesday along with U.S. House Agriculture Committee Chair Collin Peterson and state agriculture officials to discuss the recent plant closures and impact to workers and farmers around the region.
The three Republican members of Minnesota's congressional delegation — Reps. Jim Hagedorn, Tom Emmer and Pete Stauber — on Tuesday applauded the president's action, saying it would help reopen markets for livestock producers pinched by the shutdowns.
“These producers were faced with an unforeseen downturn of an uncertain length due to the COVID-19 outbreak," Emmer, who represents the state's 6th District, said in a news release. "The supply chain came to a grinding halt, and the closure of pork processing plants across the Midwest alone resulted in more than 40% of pork processing capacity to go offline, with more closures in sight."
Republican congressional delegates in Iowa and South Dakota echoed the comments Tuesday.
Noem says Smithfield could reopen this week
In South Dakota, state and local officials have said they expect the Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in Sioux Falls to open soon, perhaps later this week. Governor Kristi Noem has repeatedly said it is up to the company to decide when to re-open the plant.
The plant, which employs 3,700, has been closed since April 15 after an outbreak now linked to nearly 1,100 coronavirus cases and at least two deaths. The plant processes about 5% of the nation’s pork supply.
A team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently inspected the plant and wrote a report, released to the public last week, with safety recommendations for Smithfield to consider as it looks to re-open the facility. The company is still working to review and implement those suggestions, said Kim Malsam-Rysdon, secretary of the state Department of Health, on Monday.
Noem said Trump’s order recognizes the importance of the plant to the U.S. food supply, and she agreed it is a critical component to feeding the nation. But she also emphasized the importance of protecting the plant’s workers.
“We’ve been working with them and the CDC to get them online as soon as possible while protecting their employees,” Noem said. “I think we need to keep them running, but we also need to protect people, and that’s really my goal when we’re approaching the Smithfield solution that we need to have on the table.”
The governor said Monday the state is working to get personal protective equipment for the plant’s workers and will support Smithfield coronavirus testing after it re-opens the plant.
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