Minnesota officials uneasy as president prepares order to keep meat plants open

The president is expected to issue an executive order requiring meat processing plants to stay open.
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JBS Pork

Minnesota's Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm has described an order being prepared for President Trump to sign requiring meat processing plants to stay open as "problematic" and "counterintuitive."

The president is expected to make the order under the Defense Production Act that would require meat plants to stay open despite numerous outbreaks of COVID-19 among workers.

It comes as closures of plants has severely reduced the country's meat processing capacity, and as a result is leading to the euthanasia of hundreds of thousands of animals.

It comes amid major outbreaks at processing plants including Smithfield Foods in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and JBS USA in Worthington, Minnesota, which have been closed voluntarily while public health officials try to handle the growing number of cases.

An explosion of cases tied to the JBS plant has seen the total number of cases in Nobles County reach 477 as of Tuesday, which is 11 percent of the 4,181 total confirmed in Minnesota.

With many of these cases being workers at the JBS plant, Malcolm said that – without seeing the text of the order – she doesn't see how the plant could reopen under the current circumstances, though she notes that any order that does come may include provisions allowing them to operate in reduced capacity.

"We appreciate the importance of these facilities, but as we see explosion of cases it seems problematic to say the least," she said, noting that "it seems counter intuitive" to reopen while health officials are working on containing the outbreak in Minnesota hotspots.

"We understand that these are very important industries and everyone wants to see them working as soon and as safely as they can," she added.

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National media is reporting that the president is expected to deem meat processing plants as "critical infrastructure," and the government will provide additional protective gear to workers at such facilities.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union says that at least 6,500 workers at meatpacking and processing plants have been sickened or exposed to the virus, while 20 have died.

As well as JBS in Worthington, the Jennie-O Turkey plant in Willmar is also currently shut down.

Kris Ehresmann, the director of MDH Infectious Disease Epidemiology, Prevention, and Control, says that even in the event that plants are told to reopen, there may not be the workforce available to do so given the current extent of the outbreak in places like Nobles County and Sioux Falls.

"They [JBS] have employees who need to be out of work because they've been tested positive and are now isolated, and that's going to be a challenge in reopening because of the number of employees who won't be able to work."

There may be legal questions around the president's planned order as well, with CNN legal analyst Elie Honig noting that the Defense Production Act can't demand that a private company stay open.

President Donald Trump will sign an executive order Tuesday meant to stave off a shortage of chicken, pork and other meat on American supermarket shelves because of the coronavirus.

The order will use the Defense Production Act to classify meat processing as critical infrastructure to keep production plants open.

he order comes after industry leaders warned that consumers could see meat shortages in a matter of days after workers at major facilities tested positive for the virus. A senior White House official said the administration was working to prevent a situation in which a majority of processing plants shut down for a period of time, which could lead to an 80% drop in the availability of meat in supermarkets. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the order before its release.

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