Business & Lobbying

Trump’s meatpacking plant order fails to prevent shortages


Major grocery store chains are imposing limits on customers purchasing meat products, despite President Trump’s executive order last week ordering processing plants to stay open during the coronavirus pandemic.

Kroger, the largest supermarket chain in the U.S., announced limits Monday on pork and ground beef, citing shortages at some of its meat processors. Wholesaler Costco imposed similar restrictions for beef, poultry and pork the same day.

Meat processing plants have quickly become hot spots for coronavirus outbreaks, and the move by grocery stores indicates an increasingly fragile supply chain for beef and pork.

Trump attempted to head off disruptions to supply lines last week when he signed an executive order and invoked the 1950 Defense Production Act to declare the plants “critical infrastructure,” compelling the facilities to remain open during the pandemic.

The order has not led all closed plants to reopen, but Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said last week that meatpacking plants will reopen in a matter of “days, not weeks.”

Experts warn, however, that keeping plants open and reopening others will not lead to full production anytime soon.

“Even if they do open, it will probably be at a much lower capacity if they are going to try to socially distance inside the plants,” said Sanchoy Das, professor of engineering at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. “If the workers are sick, they may not show up. The plant will close if you don’t actually do something.”

Tyson Foods on Monday warned that more closures are expected and that it predicts “slowdowns” due to “team member shortages.” The company previously warned that the nation’s food supply was “breaking” as a result of the coronavirus.

“Grocery stores may be concerned that … manufacturing groups cannot sustain the production line without a fully staffed labor force,” said Kevin M. Fitzpatrick, a sociology professor at the University of Arkansas. “With walkouts, people sick, and people quitting, some of these production occupations require skill and training and you just can’t replace people on production lines when someone quits.”

The Department of Agriculture said in a statement to The Hill that shortages at grocery stores, leading to stores limiting purchases, is not a food supply issue.

“The bare store shelves you see in some cities in the country are a demand issue, not a supply issue. The way that food is prepared and packaged to be sold to a restaurant or school is significantly different than the way it’s packaged for you to buy in the grocery store. Our food supply chain needs time to adjust to these changes that have happened in a very short period of time,” a spokesperson said.

“The supply chain has shown a tremendous amount of agility during this time and will continue to adjust to the impacts of COVID-19,” the spokesperson added. “We have more than enough food in this country to feed the American people.”

Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), former chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, also said he was confident in the nation’s food supply, telling the conservative Ripon Society in a recent interview that “there’s plenty of product.”

“The question is, how do we get it to the consumer’s plate? That’s the real challenge. Because in the meatpacking industry, you basically have two directions in which the product flows,” he said. “Part of it flows towards restaurants. They’re different cuts. … On the other side of the supply chain, you have the product that goes toward retailers and grocery stores.”

But the meat shortages aren’t just hitting grocery stores.

Fast food chain Wendy’s is no longer offering meat-based items at about 1,000 of its locations.

Krista Foster, supply chain management professor at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, said the main issue is the need to reroute the supply chain.

“There’s these disruptions, and you need to try to figure out how to rework those supply chains so the supply is going to the right customers,” Foster said. “There is the demand, but they’re not aligned in the way that they were three months ago, so changing the supply chain to match them up again is a little bit of challenge.”

Trump’s executive order came after top meat producers — Smithfield, Tysons and JBS — had to shut down several plants due to coronavirus outbreaks.

Unions and many Democratic lawmakers bashed Trump’s move, saying the focus should be on increased safety measures at plants. On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) criticized Trump for invoking the Defense Production Act for meat plants but not for ramped-up testing.

“The president will invoke the Defense Production Act for meat plants, but not for testing. I would say to President Trump directly, until you get a handle on testing, this crisis will continue to go on and on,” Schumer told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

Industry groups argue that Trump’s order will lead to increased production at meat plants in the near future.

“In the coming weeks, as the nation struggles to overcome the virus, the Executive Order will help ensure the hardworking men and women of the meat and poultry industry continue to work in the safest conditions possible to meet demand and put food on the table,” Sarah Little, vice president of communications of the North American Meat Institute, said in a statement.

In the meantime, Trump’s very public focus on the supply chain for meat products could lead to heightened anxiety among consumers, according to Das.

“If the federal government puts an order like that for meat packing plants, the public feels that there is something serious and the government has to intervene,” Das said. “And there is something serious.”

Tags Charles Schumer Coronavirus Donald Trump Frank Lucas Sonny Perdue

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