U.S. meat company sues New Mexico to stay open after COVID-19 cases

FILE PHOTO: Worker prepares pork sausages at Newswanger Meats in Shiloh, Ohio, U.S., May 14, 2020 as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak continues. REUTERS/Dane Rhys

CHICAGO (Reuters) - A U.S. meat company that supplies Walmart and Costco is suing New Mexico to fight a state order that seeks to close a production facility where more than 100 workers have tested positive for COVID-19.

The lawsuit from Stampede Meat argues the plant in Sunland Park, New Mexico, should stay open under an executive order from President Donald Trump, pitting the federal government against local health officials as coronavirus infections rise.

Trump in April ordered meat plants to stay open to protect the U.S. food supply, following virus outbreaks at slaughterhouses that slashed production and prompted retailers like Costco and Kroger to limit customers’ purchases.

However, the New Mexico Department of Health last week ordered Stampede Meat to shut for 14 days, after the state identified at least six COVID-19 cases at the plant during a five-day period in late October.

Stampede Meat’s lawsuit said the order is unconstitutional and would force the company to destroy millions of pounds of meat that could go to grocers or other customers like the restaurant chains Denny’s and Applebee’s.

“Allowing the Department of Health to ignore the President’s Executive Order and close Stampede Meat and other meat and poultry processing companies will lead to similar food shortages and rationing,” the lawsuit said.

Stampede Meat did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

New Mexico’s health department declined to comment on the lawsuit. Department spokeswoman Marisa Maez said Stampede Meat had not halted operations at the plant as far as the department was aware. At least 11 employees had tested positive over two weeks when the state ordered the plant shut, and more than 100 employees have tested positive during the pandemic, she said.

Stampede Meat contacted the U.S. Department of Agriculture for possible help testing employees, according to the lawsuit. A USDA spokesman said the agency offered to help New Mexico manage the pandemic and ensure food supplies.