President Donald Trump has ordered meat-processing plants to stay open to protect the food supply in the US, after further closures due to COVID-19.
Some of the world’s biggest meat companies, including Smithfield Foods, Cargill, JBS USA and Tyson, have halted operations at about 20 slaughterhouses and processing plants in North America due to illness among workers, Reuters reports.
An estimated 3,300 US meatpacking workers have been diagnosed with coronavirus and 20 have died, according to the BBC.
This has prompted warnings of a global meat shortage, with John H. Tyson, chairman of Tyson Foods, suggesting the food supply chain was ‘breaking’.
A number of the affected sites are pork plants, including Smithfield’s massive Sioux Falls plants, where 5% of American pork is processed and over 800 people have tested positive for COVID-19, earning it the description of the ‘largest coronavirus hotbed in the US’.
Smithfield, owned by the Chinese food giant WH Group, has closed a number of other plants across the US, including a major meat packing plant in Illinois, although there have been reports this week that the South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem wants to re-open Sioux Falls ‘in a matter of days’.
Mr Tyson’s warning about the ability of the meat industry to meet demand followed comments by Smithfield chief executive Ken Sullivan that the plant closures were pushing the country ‘perilously close to the edge’ in terms of meat supply.
A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said capacity could be reduced by as much as 80% if action is not taken, with the vast majority of processing plants forced to shut, Reuters reports.
Trump has issued an executive order to mandate that the plants continue to function. It is designed in part to give companies legal cover with more liability protection in case employees catch the virus as a result of having to go to work. He told reporters in the Oval Office that signing the order ‘will solve any liability problems’. “And we always work with the farmers. There’s plenty of supply,” he added.
The executive order said the closures ‘threaten the continued functioning of the national meat and poultry supply chain, undermining critical infrastructure during the national emergency’.
The move was criticised by workers’ unions, however, who fear for the safety of workers. “While we share the concern over the food supply, today’s executive order to force meatpacking plants to stay open must put the safety of our country’s meatpacking workers first,” the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union said in a statement.
There have been reports of thousands of pigs in the US and Canada having to be slaughtered on farms because market outlets are closed.
The US and Canadian industries are both seeking massive support packages from their Governments.
The US National Pork Producers Council has called for Government support for farming families struggling during the crisis, including a £1bn pork purchase scheme.
Pork producers in Canada have called on the government to pay them emergency funds of CAN$20 per pig to help them stay in the business.
The major US meat companies have been criticised for their handling of the crisis. Smithfield, in particular, has been accused of failing to protect staff.
The company said that it has been ‘proactively and aggressively tackling COVID-19’ at its facilities by implementing new processes, protocols and protective measures.
Mr Tyson defended his company: “Tyson Foods places team member safety as our top priority,” he said.
Quoted in Forbes, a spokesperson for JBS said: “We will endeavour to keep our facilities open to help feed the nation, but we will not operate a facility if we do not believe it is safe. The health and safety of our team members remains our number one priority.”