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'Catastrophic Harm' Feared as Trump Uses Emergency Powers to Keep Meat-Packing Plants Open

"We only wish that this administration cared as much about the lives of working people as it does about meat, pork, and poultry products."

"The federal government should be stepping in to supplement food distribution networks to get our abundant frozen meat supplies to stores and food banks that need them."

"The federal government should be stepping in to supplement food distribution networks to get our abundant frozen meat supplies to stores and food banks that need them." (Photo: AP/Nati Harnik)

President Donald Trump is expected to take executive action as soon as Tuesday to declare meat packing plants in the U.S. essential businesses, keeping the processing facilities open despite concerns over worker and food safety in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak. 

The movegenerated criticism from labor unions, animal rights groups, and consumer advocates who charged the president was acting with gross negligence and disregard. 

"We only wish that this administration cared as much about the lives of working people as it does about meat, pork, and poultry products," Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union president Stuart Applebaum said in a statement.

"Employers and government must do better," he added. "If they want to keep the meat and poultry supply chain healthy, they need to make sure that workers are safe and healthy."

Meat processing plants have been at the center of outbreaks in numerous states, leading food safety advocates on social media to call for a shutdown of the industry:

As Bloomberg reported, Trump decided to take executive action "amid estimates that as much as 80% of U.S. meat production capacity could shut down." 

But the move is almost guaranteed to set up a confrontation at the plants:

The order sets the stage for a showdown between America's meat giants, which have been pressing to reopen plants, and some local officials and labor unions who've called for closures in a bid to prevent the virus from spreading. The president himself has long agitated for Americans to return to work and restore an economy crippled by social distancing measures.

"Trump's plan to instruct slaughter plants to stay open despite causing major outbreaks of Covid-19 is even worse than his suggestion to use disinfectant to treat sick people" Food & Water Watch's Tony Corbo said in a statement. "It's deadly and foolish and will cause catastrophic harm."

Corbo added that it was clear that "if unsafe food plants remain open, more food workers will die."

"The federal government should be stepping in to supplement food distribution networks to get our abundant frozen meat supplies to stores and food banks that need them," said Corbo. "Instead, they're currying favor with giant corporations that have continuously put their bottom line above worker workers' health, food safety, and the vitality of our food supply chain."

The Environmental Working Group's senior vice president for government affairs Scott Faber echoed the calls for the president to put worker safety ahead of corporate profits and ensure plant employees are at least provided with personal protective equipment (PPE) and other needed safety. 

"Sending workers back to meat-processing plants without proper protection is tantamount to a death sentence," said Faber. "Rather than escalating this danger with reckless fiats, President Trump should be ensuring food and farm workers have adequate PPE, plenty of space to work safely and free testing—not to mention paid sick leave and medical care if they do get sick."

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