Democrats press USDA on worker safety at meat processing plants

Democrats press USDA on worker safety at meat processing plants
© Greg Nash

Senate Democrats on Friday raised concerns with the Department of Agriculture (USDA) that President TrumpDonald John TrumpWhite House sued over lack of sign language interpreters at coronavirus briefings Wife blames Trump, lack of masks for husband's coronavirus death in obit: 'May Karma find you all' Trump authorizes reduced funding for National Guard coronavirus response through 2020 MORE's executive order to keep meatpacking plants open could be putting workers in danger.

Twenty-nine Democratic senators, led by Sen. Debbie StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann StabenowACLU calls on Congress to approve COVID-19 testing for immigrants Senators press IRS chief on stimulus check pitfalls Democrats warn Biden against releasing SCOTUS list MORE (Mich.), the ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, sent a letter to USDA Secretary Sonny PerdueGeorge (Sonny) Ervin PerdueThe ethanol industry is essential — it deserves a boost from Congress US trade policy milks America's dairy farmers Ivanka Trump hands out food boxes to DC families MORE, urging the his agency to take steps to protect workers before reopening plants.

“We are concerned the Executive Order has put pressure on plants to reopen and that USDA is not taking sufficient measures to ensure the plants are operating consistent with federal safety guidance,” the senators wrote.

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They said the USDA should create localized working groups to safely reopen plants and ensure meat processing plants operate within safety guidelines. The senators also called on Trump to use the Defense Production Act to access and produce personal protective equipment and testing kits.

Trump signed an executive order last month, citing the Defense Production Act, that compelled meatpacking facilities to remain open during the pandemic.

Coronavirus outbreaks at meatpacking plants have forced several facilities to close, leading to meat shortages. Thousands of workers have tested positive for COVID-19 and several have died as a result of the outbreaks in states like Iowa and South Dakota.

Sen. Tammy BaldwinTammy Suzanne BaldwinBiden: I'll have a running mate picked next week The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Divided GOP to unveil COVID-19 bill Biden strikes populist tone in blistering rebuke of Trump, Wall Street MORE (D-Wis.) last week wrote to the CEOs of JBS, Smithfield Foods and Tyson Foods to demand answers on working conditions and safety following the outbreaks in plants.

Perdue last week predicted that plants will fully reopen in the next seven to 10 days.

On Friday, Perdue said he does not expect a food shortage to ensue as a result of outbreaks in meat processing plants.

“While we recognize the importance of keeping these plants running, it is wrong and shortsighted to use the Defense Production Act to mandate plants to stay open without effectively addressing worker safety issues,” the senators wrote. “Prematurely reopening or pressuring unsafe plants to stay open could expose employees to COVID-19. This could then sicken more workers and their families, spread the virus in their communities, and cause further damage to our food supply chain, farmers and ranchers, and rural economies.”