WASHINGTON — President Trump plans to sign an executive order on Tuesday intended to keep meat processing plants around the country open, in an effort to prevent looming shortages of pork, chicken and other products as a result of the coronavirus.
The order will classify meat processing facilities as “critical infrastructure” under the Defense Production Act, ensuring that they remain open, a White House official said.
Mr. Trump, speaking at a White House event on Tuesday, said he planned to sign the executive order on Tuesday afternoon, saying that meat producers are facing liability that is “unfair to them.”
But unions and labor advocates said the administration needed to do more to protect workers who often work shoulder to shoulder in refrigerated assembly lines. Thousands of meatpacking workers have already been infected, and at least 20 have died, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union said.
Outbreaks at processing plants around the United States have now shuttered much of the nation’s slaughtering capacity, causing food companies to warn of coming shortages at supermarkets and forcing farmers to kill pigs and chickens they cannot get to market.
Mr. Trump did not clarify what his executive order would actually protect the industry against but said his administration was working with Tyson Foods, one of the nation’s largest meat processors, which has warned of coming shortages.
“And we always work with the farmers,” he added.
“There’s plenty of supply,” Mr. Trump said. “It’s distribution. And we will probably have that today solved.”
As of Thursday, 13 meatpacking and food processing plants had closed at some point in the past two months, resulting in a 25 percent reduction in the nation’s pork slaughter capacity and a 10 percent reduction in beef slaughter capacity, according to the food workers union.
Some of the nation’s largest facilities, run by companies including Tyson, JBS, Smithfield Foods, Cargill and National Beef Packing, have been shuttered as a result of local outbreaks. Some plants have reopened.
While companies have been drawing on stockpiles of meat in cold storage, they have warned that supplies to supermarkets could soon dwindle as plants remain closed amid illnesses. Pressure has been mounting on the Trump administration to take action.
“It may take a while to manifest at the grocery store,” said John Newton, the chief economist of the American Farm Bureau. “But make no mistake, when you see processing capacity drop by 20 to 30 percent, it will ultimately have an impact.”
In a full-page ad published in The New York Times and The Washington Post on Sunday, John Tyson, the chairman of the board of Tyson, said millions of pounds of meat would disappear from the supply chain as pork, beef and chicken plants are forced to close, leaving a limited supply of Tyson products available in grocery stores.
“The food supply chain is breaking,” Mr. Tyson said.
But Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said the administration needed to take more urgent action to ensure that workers remained safe and healthy.
“We only wish that this administration cared as much about the lives of working people as it does about meat, pork and poultry products,” Mr. Appelbaum said. “When poultry plants shut down, it’s for deep cleaning and to save workers’ lives. If the administration had developed meaningful safety requirements early on as they should have and still must do, this would not even have become an issue.”
On Tuesday, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents meatpackers, said the administration needed to take steps to ensure the safety of meatpacking workers, including giving them access to the federal stockpile of masks and other protective gear, ensuring daily testing was available, enforcing physical distancing and providing full paid sick leave for infected workers.
“While we share the concern over the food supply, today’s executive order to force meatpacking plants to stay open must put the safety of our country’s meatpacking workers first,” said Marc Perrone, the union’s president. “Simply put, we cannot have a secure food supply without the safety of these workers.”
Gary Mickelson, a spokesman for Tyson, said the company had not seen the order, so it could not comment on its contents. “We remain focused on the protection and safety of our team members in our plant communities,” he said.
The disruptions have been catastrophic for American farmers. In addition to shuttering meatpacking plants, the closure of restaurants and school cafeterias has dampened demand for meat, milk and cheese.
Dairy farmers have been forced to dump spoiling milk in their fields, while poultry and hog farmers have begun culling flocks and herds. Farmers have been forced to drive across multiple states to sell their products, Mr. Newton said.
Critics have said American meat processors are partly to blame for their vulnerabilities. Decades of consolidation have left the nation’s food supply in the hands of relatively few companies. And labor groups have long criticized meatpacking plants for pushing to increase production speeds at the expense of worker safety.
The meat producers successfully lobbied for the federal government to unveil a new rule last year allowing pork plants to run their production lines as fast as they want, with fewer food inspectors keeping watch. The United Food and Commercial Workers union sued to block the rule, saying it would put workers in danger.
During the pandemic, the companies have been criticized for moving too slowly to supply workers with masks and other protective gear. In many plants, workers cut and debone meat in tight conditions, share meals in crowded cafeterias and walk the same narrow hallways, making social distancing practically impossible.
On Sunday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued guidelines to help meat companies keep workers safe as production resumes at some of the closed plants. The guidelines call for the companies to encourage single-file movement throughout their plants and configure workstations so employees are spaced six feet apart, among other recommendations. But food safety and labor advocates said the rules were unenforceable.
“It’s a guideline. It’s not a regulation. They can do whatever they want,” said Tony Corbo, a senior lobbyist for Food & Water Watch. “The people are still standing next to one another in these plants. They’re still getting sick.”
Ana Swanson reported from Washington, and David Yaffe-Bellany from Princeton Junction, N.J. Peter Baker contributed reporting from Washington.