Donald Trump has issued an executive order to force meat-processing factories to remain open, as concerns mount about the US food supply chain after the closure of several big plants because of Covid-19 outbreaks.
The US president invoked the Defense Production Act — a Korean war-era law that permits the government to compel companies to take action for national security reasons — after a spate of recent outbreaks of the virus at processing facilities raised concerns about serious food shortages.
“This action will further ensure that vitally important food processors are able to continue to operate safely and meet the consumer needs of the American people,” the White House said.
Over the past month Mr Trump has invoked the Defense Production Act several times, including to force General Motors to manufacture medical ventilators, and has also threatened other industries with the measure.
Earlier on Tuesday Mr Trump suggested that the executive order would help shield companies from any legal liability that could arise from remaining open while they deal with coronavirus outbreaks in their plants. “We have had some difficulty where they’re having a liability that’s really unfair to them,” he said.
In conjunction with Mr Trump’s order, the labour department said it would consider requests to help defend companies that face legal action related to keeping their plants open — but only if they adhered to recently formulated federal coronavirus-related safety guidelines.
The department said it would consider joining litigation supporting a company where it had “demonstrated good faith attempts to comply with” the federal guidelines, and added that courts often look favourably when a company complied. But it added that it would consider similar requests from workers if their employer “has not taken steps in good faith” to follow the guidance.
The order comes after Tyson Foods, the largest US meat company, warned that the nation’s food supply chain was “breaking” as the number of coronavirus cases at plants rose. It has been forced to close three slaughterhouses over the past week due to the virus and need for testing.
Iowa’s Republican governor and two senators had also urged Mike Pence, the US vice-president who heads the White House coronavirus task force, to invoke the DPA to ensure that the state could continue to process pork.
In a letter to Mr Pence, Governor Kim Reynolds and Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst said Iowan farmers could not send their pigs to market and would have to kill the animals if the plants were closed.
The United Food and Commercial Workers Union, or UFCW, which represents 250,000 meatpacking and food processing workers, said 20 people in the sector have died and 6,500 have been infected or exposed to the virus. It wants Congress to protect workers with more readily available protective equipment and widespread testing.
Kim Cordova, head of a local UFCW chapter in Greeley, Colorado, said any effort to protect companies would reduce the incentive to create a safe work environment. In Greeley, the meat processing company JBS just reopened a beef plant where more than 100 staff tested positive for Covid-19.
“If Trump waives liability for any type of lawsuit, the companies have absolutely no incentive to make a safe workplace,” said Ms Cordova. She pointed out that there was “not a long line of people waiting to be packing house workers” at the moment given the situation.
Several big pork and beef processing plants across the US have been forced to temporarily or indefinitely close following outbreaks of coronavirus. The UFCW estimated that 22 plants have closed at least temporarily. The closures have raised fears over the ability of farmers to continue getting their products to supermarkets.
Cindy Axne, a Democrat who has a Tyson Foods meat plant in her Iowa congressional district for the House of Representatives, said ensuring that workers were protected was critical to ensuring the integrity of US food supply chains.
“Any requirement, from an employer or from the president himself, for plant employees to keep coming to work because they are deemed essential needs to be accompanied by ironclad answers on what protections will be in place to reflect their importance,” Ms Axne said.
Tyson Foods said it supported the Trump administration’s efforts to help the food supply chain and emphasised the safety of its employees “will remain our top priority”.
“We’ve been screening worker temperatures, requiring protective face coverings and conducting additional cleaning and sanitising. We’ve also implemented social distancing measures, such as workstation dividers and more breakroom space,” the company said.
While the executive order could alleviate food shortages, unions said they were concerned about the impact on workers at the plants.
“We only wish that this administration cared as much about the lives of working people as it does about meat, pork and poultry products,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.
On Tuesday the number of coronavirus cases in the US topped 1m and the death toll hit almost 58,000, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
As states debate when to reopen their economies, some companies and industry associations, including the National Association of Manufacturers, have called on the federal government to help shield them from lawsuits.
The issue of liability has also become a sticking point in preliminary discussions between Democrats and Republicans over what should be in the next stimulus package.
Additional reporting by Lauren Fedor in Washington
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi