Washington, D.C. — President Trump’s recently issued Executive Order will undermine efforts to control the spread of COVID-19 and do little to ensure the continued supply of meat and poultry to consumers. Major meatpacking companies have had to temporarily close at least 15 plants in recent weeks in response to COVID-19 infections among workers. The Executive Order suggests that some of these closures were a mistake, the result of “actions in some States” that are at odds with voluntary guidance on social distancing in meatpacking plants issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) last week. Given the extraordinarily high percent of COVID infections in these plants, it’s no mistake to close them—the mistake is opening them back up.
In fact, local health departments have found rampant neglect for plant employees’ and federal food inspectors’ safety, and the mounting casualties among these workers makes clear that public health authorities need to be doing much more to promote social distancing and other contagion mitigation strategies in these plants. One critical authority that has been missing in action is USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. The agency has authority to pull its inspectors, and shut down a slaughter facility, when conditions for its inspectors are not safe, yet it has instead responded to the COVID-19 crisis by granting an unprecedented number of line speed waivers.
Fortunately, President Trump lacks the authority to directly override local health departments’ efforts to protect their communities. However, the order will give large meatpackers legal cover against aggrieved workers’ claims. It also signals to these corporations that federal regulators will continue to defer to their judgment on what is necessary to reduce infection risks among workers and inspectors, even if that means something less than what is prescribed in the voluntary OSHA and CDC guidelines.
Ultimately, ignoring health risks to workers will lead to increased food safety risks. Workers and inspectors cannot perform their essential duties in an unsafe environment. Ironically, by encouraging disregard for worker safety, this order may lead to the very food supply disruptions that it purports to address, with more unfettered transmission of the virus causing more plant closures, and more supply chain disruptions.