CHICAGO (Reuters) - The largest union representing U.S. meatpacking workers said on Friday it opposed the reopening of plants as the Trump administration had failed to guarantee workers’ safety.
At least 30 meatpacking workers have died of the novel coronavirus and more than 10,000 have contracted it, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), which represents more than 250,000 meatpacking and food processing workers, said in a statement.
The pandemic caused at least 30 meatpacking plants to temporarily close over the past two months, resulting in a 40% drop in pork production capacity and a 25% drop in beef production capacity, the union said.
Earlier on Friday, the U.S. Agriculture Department said 14 plants that had closed due to outbreaks of the virus were in the process of reopening this week. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue applauded “the safe reopening of critical infrastructure meatpacking facilities across the United States.”
U.S. President Donald Trump on April 28 invoked the 1950 Defense Production Act to mandate meat plants stay opened during the pandemic, after companies warned of meat shortages in the United States. UFCW has previously said more protective equipment and testing would be required to open the plants. On Friday the union adopted a more critical tone.
“Today’s rush by the Trump Administration to re-open 14 meatpacking plants without the urgent safety improvements needed is a reckless move that will put American lives at risk and further endanger the long-term security of our nation’s food supply,” UFCW International President Marc Perrone said in a statement.
“Since the executive order was announced by President Trump, the Administration has failed to take the urgent action needed to enact clear and enforceable safety standards at these meatpacking plants.”
The 14 plants included a Smithfield Foods Inc pork facility in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, that started operating on May 7 and another in Waterloo, Iowa, that Tyson Foods said earlier in the week would resume limited operations.
The agriculture department also said meat facilities operated by JBS USA [JBS.UL] in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and six other Tyson plants were reopening.
As of Thursday, about 35% of U.S. slaughter capacity for hogs still remained idle, said Steve Meyer, economist for Kerns and Associates. He estimated that about 32% to 33% was idle on Friday.
Reporting by Tom Polansek and Caroline Stauffer; Editing by Sandra Maler and Diane Craft