MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota — President Donald Trump is expected to sign an executive order to keep production plants open amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The move is to prevent shortages of chicken, pork and other meat. According to the Associated Press, the order will use the Defense Production Act to classify meat processing as critical infrastructure.
Minnesota's Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm called the move "problematic" and said, "It seems counter-intuitive on the level of what's happening with the outbreak."
COVID-19 cases have shut down major meat processing plants, including JBS USA in Worthington, Minnesota.
"About 45% of all the pork processing capacity in the United States is currently shut down... We have literally now almost two million pigs that are backed up in the system that farmers can plain just no longer hold," said David Preisler, CEO of the Minnesota Pork Producers Association. "Unfortunately, we're now in a position where we're forced to put pigs down in a humane way because there's no place for them to go."
Dr. Beth Thompson with Minnesota's Board of Animal Health told legislators Tuesday morning that the best case scenario is that current plants that are shut down are back open on May 18 and up to 75% production on June 1.
"Working through the week starting April 13, there was a shortfall in our processing ability of almost 300,000 hogs. As we work through those weeks, each week we continue to get more and more of a backlog. If we work to the week of June 8, we will have a backlog of 4.3 million hogs across the United States and again, that's the best case scenario," Dr. Thompson said.
Farmers are being impacted not just by plant closures but other closures, like restaurants, as well.
"60% of bacon, for example, was eaten at restaurants. So without that, that creates some demand issues," Preisler said.
President Trump's executive order is something Preisler said they had been requesting.
"This is going to be a work in progress... but hopefully this gives us a path to be more successful than where we've been the last several weeks," Preisler said.
However, some have expressed safety concerns. According to the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW), 20 workers in meatpacking and food processing have died and at least 5,000 meatpacking workers and 1,500 food processing workers have been directly impacted by the virus.
"Meatpacking companies must increase transparency around their safety efforts to ensure that meatpacking workers, elected leaders, and the communities they serve know exactly what steps they are taking to keep workers safe and our food supply secure," said UFCW International President Marc Perrone, in a statement.
"We understand though that there are employees that are sick, that they can't be at those packing plants and we completely understand that. But when we have employees that are recovered, when we have employees that are healthy, they should be able to work," Preisler said.
Tyson Foods had a full-page advertisement published in several newspapers Sunday that said, "The food supply chain is breaking."
So is it?
"The meat supply chain definitely is about to break," said Karthik Natarajan, assistant professor of supply chain operations at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management.
According to Natarajan, it's possible in the short-term customers will see some meat shortages at grocery stores.
"That's because despite this executive order, it will take some time for these plants to come back online," Natarajan said.
But Natarajan does not expect other food shortages.
"There's excess produce, more than what we can handle, and that's why we're seeing actually food wastage that is happening all through the U.S.," Natarajan said.
Produce meant for restaurants, schools and churches is many times going to waste with those places closed.
"The main problem is the requirements for restaurants, in terms of packaging, labeling, are very different from the packaging that you see at the grocery store. So it's not like I can take a big bag that was supposed to go to a restaurant and I can somehow send it to a grocery store. It doesn't work that way," Natarajan explained.
But for those shopping at grocery stores, Natarajan said they shouldn't worry.
"I think people have now seen that the food supply chain is pretty resilient. We haven't seen like any large-scale shortages yet and that's also not likely to happen going forward," Natarajan said.
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The state of Minnesota has set up a hotline for general questions about coronavirus at 651-201-3920 or 1-800-657-3903, available 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.