Using the Defense Production Act, Trump is ordering slaughterhouses and meat processing plants to stay open, to prevent or limit meat shortages in the market. The move has been slammed by unions as reckless and putting people's lives at risk.
A handful of companies produce the vast majority of meat in the US. Earlier this week, one of these companies -- Tyson Foods -- warned that "its supply chain is breaking" due to the coronavirus. Tyson has closed several production facilities and reduced activity at many others, sparking fears that production will be severely affected and ultimately, a meat shortage may hit the market.
“As pork, beef and chicken plants are being forced to close, even for short periods of time, millions of pounds of meat will disappear from the supply chain,“ a Tyson full-page ad wrote on Sunday in the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
According to unofficial statements, the vast majority of meat processing plants would have shut down, reducing processing capacity in the country by as much as 80%. Therefore, Trump's new order will label these plants as "critical infrastructure", essentially forcing them to remain open.
The order was signed under the Defense Production Act, which allows government to direct industrial production in times of crisis. Trump threatened to invoke the law to increase the supply of medical gear such as ventilators or face masks for the coronavirus outbreak.
However, unions and workers' organizations have slammed this move as irresponsible. The Environmental Working Group, an American activist group that specializes in research and advocacy in the areas of agricultural subsidies, toxic chemicals, drinking water pollutants, and corporate accountability called the order a potential death sentence. The United Food and Commercial Workers union said in a statement that if workers aren’t safe, the food supply won’t be either.
These concerns are not unjustified. COVID-19 has killed at least 20 workers in the meat processing industry, and 5,000 workers have either tested positive or have been forced to self-quarantine.
Many see the move as prioritizing economic activity over the lives and safety of workers, as well as end consumers.
“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, told Bloomberg.
Meat companies have been eager to reopen shop, but some analysts have blamed the companies themselves for being a part of the problem.
Essentially, the fact that so few plants are responsible for so much meat processing means that even the closure of a few centers can cause significant disruption.
“This is 100 percent a symptom of consolidation,” said Christopher Leonard, author of “The Meat Racket,” which examines the protein industry. “We don’t have a crisis of supply right now. We have a crisis in processing. And the virus is exposing the profound fragility that comes with this kind of consolidation.”