WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to order meatpacking plants to remain open, classifying the plants as critical infrastructure as a way to combat the strain coronavirus is placing on the food supply chain.
The executive order, released Tuesday evening, said the closure of just one large beef-processing plant could result in 10 million fewer individual servings of beef in a day.
"Such closures threaten the continued functioning of the national meat and poultry supply chain, undermining critical infrastructure during the national emergency," the order said.
A senior administration official said the U.S. government would also provide guidance to minimize risk to workers who are especially vulnerable to the virus, such as encouraging older workers and those with other chronic health issues to stay home.
Trump mentioned the order during a meeting Tuesday with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, where he said his administration was working with Tyson Foods, the nation's largest meat processor.
Signing the order, he said, "... will solve any liability problems," adding, "And we always work with the farmers. There's plenty of supply."
The order is expected to address two issues: ordering critical food supply businesses to stay open under the Defense Production Act, and providing liability protections for employers if workers get sick, NBC News reported, citing a senior administration official.
The White House actions come in response to alarm bells raised by major meat processors in recent weeks, who warned that the United States will face a consumer shortage of meat on grocery store shelves unless the plants are allowed to reopen.
Tyson placed a full-page ad in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Sunday addressing the plant closures.
"The food supply chain is breaking," Tyson Chairman John Tyson wrote.
Tyson said that a limited supply of its products will be available in grocery stores until facilities can be reopened. These temporary closures will also mean millions of livestock will be slaughtered because farmers will not be able to sell their pigs, cows and chickens to buyers who can process the meat.
On Sunday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released guidelines for meat and poultry processing workers and employers. Recommendations include adding more stations for workers to clock in and out, providing cloth face coverings for all employees, limiting carpooling and checking temperatures before workers enter the plant.
Twenty-two meatpacking plants have closed as hundreds of workers test positive for Covid-19, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union said Tuesday. The union's estimates include union and non-union facilities.
At least 20 meatpacking and food-processing workers have died after contracting Covid-19, according to union estimates. Workers at these plants often work shoulder to shoulder for hours at a time, making it nearly impossible for them to practice social-distancing measures.
The nation's largest meat processors, including Smithfield, Tyson Foods and JBS, have come under fire for not protecting workers enough.
UFCW, which represents 80% of beef and pork production workers, estimates that 25% of the country's pork production and 10% of its beef production have been hit by plant closures.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is buying $3 billion in fresh produce, dairy and meat from farmers to stabilize retail prices and reduce food waste. The agency is forecasting that 2020 beef prices will climb 1% to 2%, poultry as much as 1.5% and pork between 2% and 3%.
—Reuters contributed to this report