The executive order declaring meat processing plants as critical infrastructure means that federal food inspectors must visit plants that had been closed by their owners for safety reasons.
President Donald Trump's April 28 executive order declaring meat processing plants as critical infrastructure means that federal food inspectors have to visit plants that had been closed by their owners for safety reasons because workers were becoming infected with COVID-19 at a rapid clip.
Already, 137 food inspectors employed by the Department of Agriculture have tested positive for COVID-19 and two have died, according to the American Federation of Government Employees.
More than 20 plants have suspended operations nationwide in recent weeks.
"The president's order will do nothing to improve the unsustainable status quo," AFGE National President Everett Kelley said in a statement. "Without enforceable protections for both front-line plant workers and federal food inspectors, the president’s action will result in more preventable exposures and possibly deaths."
The order, which invokes the Defense Production Act, doesn't just automatically open shuttered meatpacking plants. But it does delegate to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue the authority to "ensure that meat and poultry processors continue operations consistent with the guidance for their operations jointly issued" by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Health and Safety Agency. That guidance -- which is voluntary -- was released April 26 and provides for certain distancing measures as well as the availability of sanitary facilities, more frequent breaks and the availability of hand sanitizer.
These measures are not currently in effect, according to Paula Schelling, acting president of AFGE Council 45, which represents 6,500 USDA food inspectors.
"Federal food inspectors entering slaughterhouses and meat processing facilities lack basic protective equipment, including face masks and hand sanitizer and social distancing is impossible since they must work nearly shoulder-to-shoulder with front-line plant employees," Schelling said in a statement. "Proper actions are needed today, not months from now. This is a recipe for disaster."
Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork producer, said that it is making investments to comply with COVID-19 guidance and is "evaluating next steps to open its currently shuttered facilities and will make announcements when it is ready to resume operations in each location."