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Trump Orders Meat Processing Plants Open Despite Worker Deaths

Buildings at a Smithfield Foods meatpacking complex in Smithfield, Virginia, United States. The nondescript facade faces State Route 10, but this photo depicts the southern side of the complex, as seen from the lane going to Ivy Hill Cemetery. Date: Taken on 30 September 2017 Source: Own work Author: Nyttend

“We only wish that this administration cared as much about the lives of working people as it does about meat, pork, and poultry products.”

President Donald Trump issued an executive order Tuesday ordering meat and poultry processing plants to keep their doors open during the coronavirus pandemic. The executive order invokes the Defense Production Act in an attempt to override local shutdown orders.

The USDA put out a statement saying they would carry out the order and attempted to offer assurances that worker safety is being considered.

But growing numbers of coronavirus are being linked back to meat processing plans across the nation. Almost 90% of the 1,326 cases in Black Hawk County, Iowa have been traced back to Tyson pork processing plant according to local officials, and the plant has only been shut down for a week.

According to reporting from the New York Times, at least 12 meat processing plants have been coronavirus hotspots with over 100 cases. Smithfield Foods pork processing facility in Sioux Falls, South Dakota is the third-largest coronavirus hotspot in the nation.

Corporate Lobbies

Tyson Foods and other large meat companies have been pushing the administrations to return processing plants to work. The National Pork Producers Council and other lobbies have also been ringing the alarm about disruption to America’s meat supply.

Howard Roth, president of the National Pork Producers Council, said, “this is the light at the end of the tunnel that the producers were desperately needing.”

Tyson Foods executives bought a full-page ad in The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette to say “the food supply chain is breaking” and “there will be limited supply of our products available in grocery stores until we are able to reopen our facilities that are currently closed.”

President Trump has bought the line from Tyson and other producers, and in a press release the White House wrote, “we’re working very hard to make sure our food supply chain is sound and plentiful.”

Unions and Workers

While notable that Tyson was able to take out a full-page ad, more importantly, labor unions and workers have been calling for better protection against the deadly coronavirus.

The United Food and Commercial Workers union confirmed 20 meatpacking and processing workers have died from coronavirus complications. 5,000 further employees have been directly impacted by the virus either due to hospitalization, contracting the virus, or quarantining due to exposure to the virus at work.

One worker at the temporarily closed Tyson plant in Waterloo, Iowa told CNN, “all I know is, this is crazy to me, because I can’t see all these people going back into work,” after President Trump announced the latest executive order.

UFCW International President Marc Perrone said in a statement, “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.”

Profits Over People

Like many other states, the United States government has consistently shown that it prioritizes corporate profit much higher than worker safety. With the United States surpassing 60,000 coronavirus deaths and well over 1 million confirmed cases, America’s public health will not recover quickly.

If processing plants take the green light from Trump and open before workers are given the proper protective equipment and medical care, meat processing plants will continue to be major outbreak centers for the coronavirus.

Outbreaks in these plants also disproportionately impact rural areas where the spread of the virus was presumed to be much lower due to a lower population density.

Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said in a statement, “we only wish that this administration cared as much about the lives of working people as it does about meat, pork, and poultry products.”

Alec Pronk

Alec is a freelance writer with an interest in both geopolitics and American domestic issues. He finished his Master's degree with a critical focus on government counterterrorism policies.

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