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NFU says Executive Order ignores well-being of meat plant workers

The NFU has issued a statement responding to the latest announcement from President Trump that he will sign an Executive Order to keep meat plants operating throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

1 May 2020, at 11:00am

Invoking the Defense Production Act, President Donald Trump has announced that he plans to sign an executive order requiring meat processing facilities to continue operating through the coronavirus pandemic.

The order, which will designate such facilities as “critical infrastructure,” is expected to absolve the companies who own them from liability for illnesses or deaths among workers.

The decision follows the closure of more than a dozen plants due to coronavirus outbreaks. As a result, national meat processing capacity has fallen by 20 percent, costing family farmers and ranchers key markets and risking meat shortages at grocery stores. Though National Farmers Union (NFU) shares the president’s concerns around maintaining food system infrastructure, the organisation is equally concerned with the health and well-being of meat plant employees, as NFU President Rob Larew emphasised in a statement:

“Meat processing facilities are critical for farmers’ livelihoods and national food security – something that has become especially clear as dozens of these plants have closed or slowed production in recent weeks. We are immensely worried about the financial implications for rural communities and the nutritional and economic implications for American consumers, and we sincerely appreciate efforts to address those issues.

“That being said, such efforts should not occur at the expense of meat plant workers. These workers work in close quarters and often lack access to appropriate protective equipment or paid sick leave, making them among the most vulnerable to coronavirus. More than 4,000 have tested positive for the virus, and at least 19 have died. Their health and lives are not an acceptable tradeoff for our meat supply, nor are these things mutually exclusive – we must find solutions that protect both.

“Most immediately, meat plant workers need personal protective equipment and other safeguards, access to testing and treatment, and paid sick leave. But in the longer-term, we need to completely rethink this economic model. Both the abuses that workers are enduring as well as the disruptions farmers and consumers are experiencing are a direct result of extreme consolidation in the meat industry. The good news is that the best mechanism to secure our food supply and protect workers is one and the same: antitrust enforcement. National Farmers Union has been calling for greater oversight for years, to little avail. We hope that this current crisis finally compels Congress and the administration to address the issue of market power in the agriculture industry and promote a diverse and resilient food system.”