The order gives Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue the power to invoke the Defense Production Act and force companies to keep their plants humming. The Trump administration hasn’t yet forced any closed facilities to come back online but over the past week, many have begun to reopen with stricter social distancing measures in place. Still, about 20 major meatpacking plants have shut down during the past several weeks as Covid-19 outbreaks spread among employees. Last week, beef and pork production in the U.S. fell by about 35% compared to last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

So where does this all leave the precarious food supply chain in the time of the coronavirus? On this episode, we talk to Jacob Bunge, agriculture reporter for the Wall Street Journal, about worker safety, farmers’ fears, euthanizing pigs and all the other complicated parts of this story.

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Listen to the full episode or read the transcript below:

Julie Grant: Can we start with President Trump and his executive order? Why did he do this and what does this executive order allow him to do? 

Jacob Bunge: The order that the president implemented invokes a Korean War-era law that lets the federal government direct production of different goods if it’s a matter of national security. They’re invoking this act to basically make sure that meatpacking plants can continue to operate without the concern that a state or local government could force them to shut down.

Grant: Why are we seeing this concern for shutdowns at plants? We’ve obviously heard that some of these meat-processing plants have had high numbers of workers that have come down with coronavirus.

Bunge: You’re right. An awful lot of them have become hot spots for COVID-19 infections. There are hundreds, sometimes thousands of people who work in these plants hours at a time. They’re standing next to each other and they’re moving around the plants. As a result, there’s been caution and sometimes direct calls from governors, mayors, even a sheriff in Iowa, really putting pressure on these meatpacking companies to close down the plants; to try and help get it under control in some way.

So the president’s act is trying to provide some sort of buffer here. The plants can continue to operate under say so of the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, and potentially provide some sort of leeway for the plants to keep going and keep producing meat and head off any further shortfalls in meat production.

Grant: Now, we’ve heard about some plants around the country that have closed temporarily. And at those plants, they’ve tried to clean up and create some level of social distancing with maybe some plastic barriers between workers and in other kinds of protections. Have those plants, when they’ve come back online, proven less likely to create infection among workers? 

Bunge: Well, we’re only starting to see the answer to that question in the last week or so. The first plants that closed down were some beef plants in the state of Pennsylvania. Just over the past week, those have come back online. And so far, at least in Pennsylvania, the indications have been good — 80 to 90 percent of the workers are returning. So far, there has not been a significant spike in infection rates in those places.

The CDC has put in place guidelines for these plants to follow like requiring masks and, where possible, spacing employees out. But there are a couple of potential hurdles to all of this. One is that the CDC guidelines are not required. It’s up to the USDA to decide if the companies are following these to the best of their ability.

The other issue is the simple fact that these meatpacking plants are not set up for social distancing; they’re designed for people to work side-by-side. In some ways, there’s a real limit to how much social distancing can be done in a meat plant and still operated in the normal way.

Gov. Wolf and Ag Secretary Talk Food Supply, Meat Processing Plants

Grant: How bad have infections been among workers at some of these meat processing plants? And what has that meant in some of the communities where these are the really large employers for the people of these towns? 

Bunge: Well, the places where the meatpacking plants are located, the infection rates are quite high. For example, in southwestern Minnesota, a city named Worthington, where JBS runs a pork plant. The local officials there had estimated the county’s rate of infections (the number of infections compared with the number of people in the county), it was on par with New York City.

Now the companies and USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue have argued that you can’t necessarily tie the infection rates directly to the plants and that often the workers live in housing complexes and apartment buildings where there might be a lot of people living in close quarters as well. And that’s a contributing factor that people need to take into account.

They’re arguing basically that the meatpacking plants shouldn’t shoulder all of the blame for these higher rates of infections. But the fact remains that the places where these plants are, an awful lot of people getting sick with this.

Grant: Over the past week or so, the president of Tyson Foods, one of the big processors, has come out and said, ‘look, our meat supply is going to be in some real trouble here.’ Was President Trump’s order a direct response to that information? 

Bunge: Well, I’d be speculating on that. It’s safe to say that the Trump administration was watching all of this very closely. There were concerns within the Trump administration that the percentage of U.S. meat production would decline even further than it already had if plants continued to close.

“At the end of the day, it’s still going to be a question of whether or not these workers feel comfortable coming in to continue to work every day.”

So their concern was figuring out a way to make sure that these meatpacking plants continue to operate and that grocery store meat cases don’t go empty. We already have seen some instances where the selection of meat products has narrowed. There’s fewer choices because the meatpacking plants are trying to prioritize the things that they can make with the least amount of people.

In some cases, we’ve talked to grocery stores where they’re not getting all of their meat orders filled because the suppliers don’t have enough. People in the industry expect that’s probably going to get worse before it gets better.

Grant: So this is where President Trump has stepped in. What is his order actually say? It’s been reported he’s saying meat-processing plants are required to stay open. Is that accurate? 

Bunge: Well, I look at it more like the federal government is the one that has the authority over when these meatpacking plants have to close. It effectively means that a state or a county health department cannot force one of these plans to close unless the USDA agrees. It’s a buffer for the meatpacking plants to continue to function, but are still reliant on their workers coming in. The president can’t compel workers to show up every day.

It’s partly up to the meat companies and to the folks at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to make sure that the plants are safe enough that the workers want to come back.

Grant: The order does seem to be pitting the big meat companies against their own workers. We’ve heard a lot from unions that are concerned for their workers and there’s been some reporting with quotes from workers themselves saying that when they didn’t feel well and tried to report in that they weren’t coming to work that day, they were told that they were fired. What do you see as happening between meat companies and their workers at this point? 

Bunge: Well, the meat companies have tried to sort of get ahead of this in some ways. Over the month of March, a lot of them were announcing temporary pay increases, for example, as an incentive for workers to keep on coming in. They were offering, in some cases, for the first time to pay workers for staying home sick and giving time off if people had to take care of children or loved ones, for example. They’re trying to do what they can to check temperatures, for example. They’re also taking any number of measures inside the plants themselves.

But you still have a situation where an awful lot of these workers are afraid for their own health and they’re afraid of getting the virus at work and passing it to an elderly loved one that might have a preexisting condition. So at the end of the day, it’s still going to be a question of whether or not these workers feel comfortable coming in to continue to work every day.

Grant: At least one union we spoke with said the president’s order should have started with the mandatory actions to protect workers and consumers instead of focusing on the need to keep plants open and providing these voluntary guidelines for things like social distancing and other worker protections you’ve been talking about.

It’s an interesting dynamic with the now the federal government saying they’re going to be the ones to decide if these plants are safe enough to stay open. What are you hearing from the states and the locals about that? Do they trust that the USDA will make the right decisions? 

Bunge: There’s still a lot of concern about this. These plants are sometimes the biggest employer in these towns. It’s a real worry among some of these folks like the local mayor that if they reopen the plants too soon, that there’ll be another surge in infection rates.

Some of these towns do not have strong local health systems. I talked to the mayor of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and he recognized that at this point, maybe it makes sense for the federal government to step in because the food system is bigger than any one municipality, even a city as large as Sioux Falls. They’re going to watch and see what happens. I don’t think that they’re going to stop talking about it, even if they don’t necessarily have the authority to close down any of these facilities.

Grant: What has been the impact on farmers that produce pork and chicken and beef? 

Bunge: That’s been one of the more gruesome aspects of this whole thing. Having these slaughterhouses closed down is a major problem for the farmers that need to send poultry or livestock to them to be processed and, for that matter, to get paid for it. With the chicken plants being slower, we’ve seen only a couple of cases where those plants have closed down. The cattle ranchers have a little bit more flexibility in the sense that they can keep their cattle out on pastures longer. They don’t necessarily run out of space for them.

But it’s the pig farmers that are the ones that are in the most trouble because they operate on a system that’s much like a pipeline, where they’ll raise the hogs from piglets on up to about 290 pounds and then they need to be sent to the slaughterhouse. Oftentimes they’ll have another delivery of young pigs coming up in just a matter of weeks. So they need the space in the barns to put those in. They need the time to clean out the barns before they bring the new ones in. When they’re not able to make deliveries to the slaughterhouses, as they are not now in parts of the upper Midwest, it creates a real problem because the hogs continue to gain weight. They start to crowd the barns. It’s unsafe for the pigs.

“They can try to prevent overcrowding but some of these farmers are getting to the point now where they’re having to look at euthanasia for thousands and thousands of hogs.”

In the meantime, the farmers need to continue to care for them and continue to feed them. So you’re seeing situations now where the hog farmers are trying to look around for feed that will basically be like a salad for the hogs, where they’ll eat it but not gain a lot of weight.

They can try to prevent overcrowding but some of these farmers are getting to the point now where they’re having to look at euthanasia for thousands and thousands of hogs.

There was a plant that started back up in southern Minnesota this week. This is one of the plants that had been closed due to infections among workers. They brought back in a skeleton crew of about 10 or 20 people just to run the kill line. They’re slaughtering about 3,000 hogs a day and looking to either render the carcasses or bury them somewhere.

It’s just an awful situation for a farmer.

Every pig that a hog farmer raises is going to go to the slaughterhouse eventually. But that’s for the purpose of producing food for people and it’s a much different thing when a farmers get a look at a barn full of animals that he’s put months into raising, trying to keep healthy and hopefully provide food at the end of the day, and instead look at the prospect that those animals are going to have to be killed and wasted.

Jacob Bunge, agriculture reporter for the Wall Street Journal.