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Law360 (April 28, 2020, 7:47 PM EDT) -- President Donald Trump on Tuesday designated meatpacking plants as critical infrastructure amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a move meant to address concerns about potential liability for the packing companies.
Trump signed an executive order late Tuesday deeming meat processors to be critical under the Defense Production Act, which should shore up the food supply chain and remove a "legal roadblock" for those companies, he said in a press conference at the White House.
"With the meatpacking and the transportation, we have had some difficulty, where they're having a liability that's really unfair to them. … [We're] taking the liability which frees up the entire system," Trump said. "There's plenty of supply. It's distribution."
The order designates meat and poultry in the food supply chain as "critical and strategic materials" under Section 101 of the DPA, a statute that gives the president broad authority to address issues deemed necessary for "the national defense."
It notes that both outbreaks among workers and actions by states related to COVID-19 may have led to large processing facilities being shut, and tasks the U.S Department of Agriculture with taking "all appropriate action" to ensure meat processors continue operating, while also following recent guidance on worker safety from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The president said he had worked with Tyson Foods Inc. on the order, which came after the company's chairman, John Tyson, issued a statement Sunday saying closures of its pork, beef and chicken plants would result in "millions of pounds of meat [disappearing] from the supply chain" and shortages of its products in grocery stores.
Tyson Foods is the biggest meat processor in the U.S. and one of several processors that have temporarily shuttered plants or slowed down operations, due both to pressure from local authorities and unions, as well as thousands of workers staying home because they are sick or are concerned about getting sick.
"The food supply chain is breaking," Tyson said. "We have a responsibility to feed our country. It is as essential as health care. This is a challenge that should not be ignored. Our plants must remain operational so that we can supply food to our families in America."
Keeping those plants operational was a "delicate balance because Tyson Foods places team member safety as our top priority," he said.
Trump's directive was slammed by Democrats and some workers' groups, with House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby Scott, D-Va., saying in a statement that the "profoundly disturbing" order would force workers into working in dangerous conditions.
"If the Trump administration plans to use the Defense Production Act to force meat processing plants to stay open, the American public must understand that workers will continue to get sick and die," Scott said.
"The administration would better reflect the best of America's values if it used the DPA to mandate the production and distribution of personal protective equipment, while issuing an emergency workplace safety standard to protect workers from COVID-19," Scott added.
Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union — the largest U.S. union for meatpacking workers — said in a statement that although the union shares concerns about the food supply, the safety of workers must come first.
He urged the White House to enact "clear and enforceable" safety standards compelling meatpackers to provide personal protective equipment and daily testing of workers, as well as physical distancing at all plants and paid sick leave.
"Simply put, we cannot have a secure food supply without the safety of these workers," Perrone said.
Representatives for several meatpackers did not immediately respond to requests for comment late Tuesday.
--Additional reporting by Vin Gurrieri and Adam Lidgett. Editing by Stephen Berg and Aaron Pelc.
Update: This story has been updated to include details from the executive order.
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