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Meat packing called ‘critical infrastructure’

Invoking the Defense Production Act of 1950, as amended, President Trump declared meat processing plants “critical infrastructure” and directed Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to “take all appropriate action … to ensure that meat and poultry processors continue operations” after several major food production facilities were closed after becoming hot spots for COVID-19.

“It is important that processors of beef, pork and poultry in the food supply chain continue operating and fulfilling orders to ensure a continued supply of protein for Americans,” the executive order stated. “Given the high volume of meat and poultry processed by many facilities, any unnecessary closures can quickly have a large effect on the food supply chain.

“For example, closure of a single large beef processing facility can result in the loss of over 10 million individual servings of beef in a single day. Similarly, under established supply chains, closure of a single meat or poultry processing facility can severely disrupt the supply of protein to an entire grocery store chain.”

The executive order said “the Secretary of Agriculture … may identify additional specific food supply chain resources that meet the criteria” under the DPA.

The backlash to the executive order was swift.

“Using executive power to force people back on the job without proper protections is wrong and dangerous,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka wrote on Twitter, saying he echoed calls by the food workers’ union “to put worker safety first.”

The executive order came after JBS USA and Smithfield Foods, Inc., each announced closure of production facilities last week.

JBS USA announced the temporary closure of its Green Bay, Wisconsin, beef production facility, which employs more than 1,200 people and feeds nearly 3.2 million Americans every day. In Wisconsin, the virus has spread to 66 of 72 counties, including Brown County, home of the JBS Green Bay facility. JBS USA will pay its team members during the plant closure.

“As an essential business providing necessary supplies and services for Wisconsin, we have endeavored to maintain operations to ensure continued access to safe, affordable food,” said Shannon Grassl, president of JBS USA Regional Beef. “Given the continued spread of coronavirus in our community and among our workforce, we have decided to voluntarily close our Green Bay facility in an effort to help flatten the curve of infections in Brown County. We’ve been focused on doing everything we can to keep the virus out of our facility, but we believe a temporary closure is the most aggressive action we can take to help our community collectively slow the spread of COVID-19.”

JBS USA operates more than 60 meat, poultry and prepared foods facilities across the United States. The Green Bay beef facility is the fourth JBS USA plant to close temporarily to help slow community spread. The Souderton, Pennsylvania, and Greeley, Colorado beef production facilities have reopened, and the Worthington, Minnesota pork facility remains closed.

Smithfield announced it was closing its Cudahy, Wisconsin, and Martin City, Missouri facilities beginning later this week. Its Cudahy dry sausage and bacon plant will shutter for two weeks. Its Martin City plant, which employs more than 400 people and produces spiral and smoked hams, receives raw material from the company’s Sioux Falls, South Dakota, facility, which is closed indefinitely. Without these raw materials, the facility cannot continue to run.

Smithfield will resume operations in Sioux Falls once it receives further direction from local, state and federal officials. This also will allow the company to bring its Martin City facility back online.

“The closure of our Martin City plant is part of the domino effect underway in our industry,” Smithfield CEO and President Kenneth Sullivan said. “It highlights the interdependence and interconnectivity of our food supply chain. Our country is blessed with abundant livestock supplies, but our processing facilities are the bottleneck of our food chain. Without plants like Sioux Falls running, other further processing facilities like Martin City cannot function.

“This is why our government has named food and agriculture critical infrastructure sectors and called on us to maintain operations and normal work schedules. For the security of our nation, I cannot understate how critical it is for our industry to continue to operate unabated.”

According to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, there is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with the transmission of COVID-19.

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