The virus that causes COVID-19 spreads most easily when its potential human hosts spend lengths of time in close quarters. That’s exactly the environment in which employees at meatpacking plants labor. The unsurprising result has been COVID-19 hot spots in such facilities and subsequent plant closures. Hardest hit is pork, with a 25% reduction in capacity this week.
The closures ripple both ways in the food supply chain. Consumers are expected to see smaller selections and higher prices. Farmers, who operate on finely tuned husbandry schedules, face decisions of whether to euthanize animals for which no market is readily available.
To President Donald Trump, the situation is ripe for an exercise of the Defense Production Act, which allows him to mobilize private industry in the national interest. Trump has been meek about using that authority during the coronavirus crisis, even amid shortages of critical medical supplies, except for the occasional grandiloquent gesture. But on Tuesday, officials said he would cite it to order meat-processing plants to stay open.
Good? Bad? Or just another impossible choice amid the pandemic?
One in three of the nation’s largest meatpacking plants operates in a county with a high rate of COVID-19 infection, according to USA Today. For the convenience of the American consumer, who on average eats roughly twice the amount of protein recommended daily, the administration will put these workers at risk. Politico reported that the government will provide additional protective gear for employees as well as guidance.
Still, according to the Wall Street Journal, White House officials fear that as much as 80% of the industry’s capacity could be shut down without action.
Trump told reporters that “there’s plenty of supply” but that there’s a “legal roadblock.” He meant that the owners of processing plants face liability risks and need protection. The Labor Department is expected to issue guidance.
It seems likely that any liability questions will end up in court. Much rides on the administration’s guidance. It will be interesting to see if it’s clearer than that of the Small Business Administration regarding the Paycheck Protection Program, a much-needed relief effort that’s been hampered by clumsy execution.