By Matt Reese
President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act (DPA) to extend federal support to the U.S. meat production and production systems. By triggering the DPA, the federal government will prioritize the continuity of meat processing plant operations.
The nation’s pork industry has been hit particularly hard with processing back-ups in recent weeks, said Cheryl Day, executive vice president of the Ohio Pork Council.
“The executive order is taking real time action to ensure the safety of those workers in the plant but also to make sure our food supply chain for meat and poultry will continue,” Day said. “It declares that processing plants are critical infrastructure and seeks to safely keep those processing plants open so farmers can keep delivering hogs at some level and there will be pork delivered to the consumer. While this won’t financially fix what is going on in the industry at the farm level, it definitely will help them continue to deliver hogs and it is the right move in the right direction.”
According to a White House factsheet, the Department of Agriculture is directed to ensure America’s meat and poultry processors continue operations uninterrupted to the maximum extent possible under the order. To ensure worker safety, these processors will continue to follow the latest guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The effort may include additional legal liability protection for processing plants.
The executive order has generated concerns from union officials who are pushing for increased safety protection and resources for workers.
“To protect America’s food supply, America’s meatpacking workers must be protected. The reality is that these workers are putting their lives on the line every day to keep our country fed during this deadly outbreak, and at least 20 meatpacking workers have tragically died from coronavirus while more than 5,000 workers have been hospitalized or are showing symptoms. For the sake of all our families, we must prioritize the safety and security of these workers,” said Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. “Simply put, we cannot have a secure food supply without the safety of these workers.”
At the same time, the consumers of the nation are demanding food and farms have a plentiful supply, Day said.
“COVID-19 has been causing havoc for everyone. For pig farmers, though, it has been like a wreaking ball. We are working on this ‘just in time’ inventory. Pig farmers plan over a year in advance to deliver just the right amount of pigs to the space available at processing plants nationwide. When we have a one-week disruption it really backs up the flow of pigs and they have to adjust really quickly,” she said. “It also means less pounds being processed. All pork producers understand that the processing plants have to slow down their lines to protect their workers at the plant level, but that means less loads being delivered each week to the processing plant. Last week we did feel two impacts for Ohio pork producers when two Indiana plants closed, Tyson and Indiana Packers. Those really hit us hard.”
So far, Ohio hog production has largely been able to avoid some really challenging decisions to euthanize pigs with nowhere to go, though that may be changing.
“Resilient Ohio pig farmers started using management practices long before this because they anticipated the slow down. They slowed animal growth, they figured out how to re-stock barns and everything else they could do for animal welfare, but they are running out of time. Running out of time means very difficult decisions and actions being taken to handle an overflow,” Day said. “In Ohio we have been blessed with Clemens Food Group, JBS and Routh Packing, but we could still see producers facing these difficult decisions by the end of the week.”
There is some hope for the hog industry moving forward in the form of exports and increased retail demand.
“If we look at our export markets, they have been steadily growing,” Day said. “There is good news on the retail level too. The food demand shift really did dramatically change everything. Consumers are buying more pork. They are buying things like loins because they realize the value in preparing that at home. We are hoping they continue that habit moving forward.”