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Sec. Perdue Expects Meat Plants to Reopen Within 10 Days

Sky Chadde and Kyle Bagenstose reported on the front page of today’s USA Today that, “The meatpacking industry hit a grim milestone this week when the number of coronavirus cases tied to outbreaks at its beleaguered plants passed 10,000, according to USA TODAY and Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting tracking.

At least 170 plants in 29 states have had one or more workers test positive for the coronavirus. Some of those workers also have infected others, which is included in the count. At least 45 workers have died.”

“Infections at meat plants hit 10,000,” by Sky Chadde and Kyle Bagenstose. Front Page- USA Today (May 7, 2020).

Today’s article added that, “The outbreaks have prompted at least 40 meat slaughtering and processing plant closures – lasting anywhere from one day to several weeks – since the start of the pandemic.”

Writing in today’s Des Moines Register, Donnell Eller reported that, “Tyson Foods plans to restart its Waterloo pork processing plant Thursday with limited production after closing it for two weeks as hundreds of workers tested positive for COVID-19.

“The challenge for Tyson and other manufacturers reopening meatpacking plants in the Midwest will be regaining workers’ trust that the facilities are safe to work in, said Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart.”

The Register article pointed out that, “The state said Tuesday that 444 workers at the Waterloo plant, which employs about about 2,800, had tested positive for COVID-19. All together, 1,653 meatpacking plant workers in Iowa have tested positive for the coronavirus, the Iowa Department of Health said.”

Even with the Waterloo Tyson plant slowly coming online, as well as massive plants across Iowa’s border in South Dakota and Minnesota, the country still has lost about 38% of its pork processing capacity, said Steve Meyer, an economist at Kerns and Associates in Ames.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg writer Jordan Fabian reported on Wednesday that, “U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said he expects U.S. meatpacking plants to fully resume operations within a week to 10 days, during a meeting with President Donald Trump and Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds.

“Trump said the U.S. has ‘plenty of supply’ of meat. ‘Within a week and a half, we’ll be in great shape. Maybe sooner,’ the president told reporters in the Oval Office.”

And Jacob Bunge reported yesterday at The Wall Street Journal Online that, “‘We’ve turned the corner,’ said USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue in a briefing Wednesday with President Trump and Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds.

“Mr. Perdue is pushing U.S. meatpackers to resume operations as some grocery stores struggle to keep ground beef and other meat products in stock, while slaughter-ready livestock back up on farms and ranches, forcing some farmers to euthanize animals. Mr. Trump last week issued an executive order handing the USDA more authority over when meatpacking plants have to close due to Covid-19 outbreaks.”

In other developments from the executive branch, DTN Ag Policy Editor Chris Clayton reported yesterday that, “With more packing plants idling in major red-meat states such as Nebraska, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue wrote to governors and stakeholders late Tuesday, asking them to document what they are doing to reopen.”

Mr. Clayton explained that, “In his letter to governors, Perdue stated he had directed meat and poultry processors to follow the guidance sent down on April 26 by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). CDC and OSHA called on packers to screen employees, clean shared tools and equipment, provide personal protective gear and implement social distancing practices.”

Yesterday’s article added that, “As DTN has reported, cattle processing right now is down roughly 37% from the same period a year ago while pork processing is down about 35% as well.”

In a related item, Richard Trumka, the president of the A.F.L. – C.I.O., stated in a New York Times column today that, “Like health care workers, front-line workers in meatpacking plants are facing similar P.P.E. shortages, and many plants have become coronavirus hot spots.”

In other COVID-19 related developments to agriculture, DTN Ag Policy Editor Chris Clayton reported yesterday that, “A group of five Republican Illinois congressmen have written the state’s Democratic governor calling on him to ask the Federal Emergency Management Agency for funds to help pork producers in the state.

“The letter to Gov. J.B. Pritzker states pork industry in Illinois and nationally ‘is currently in crisis mode.’ Citing the closing of packing plants because of COVID-19, the congressmen state ‘pork producers are in desperate need of assistance to prevent further financial harm.'”

The DTN article explained that, “The lawmakers point out more than 750,000 hogs right now have no market as restaurants and schools are close due to mandates from the governor. Combined with the closure of packing plants, ‘this will result in producers euthanizing many hundreds of thousands of market-ready herds.’ The financial impacts of those decisions ‘will be devastating for years to come.’

“The congressmen in their letter note a governor must request emergency support from FEMA, and the lawmakers want aid to producers to help dispose of hog carcasses ‘in a manner that protects public health and safety, and ensure that financial assistance is provided to producers in covering disposal costs.’ The lawmakers state such assistance is provided under the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act.”

And Neil MacFarquhar reported in today’s New York Times that, “With Americans cooking much more at home, demand has grown for eggs — to scramble, fry, bake or crack into any number of meals. But it will cost you.

The tripling in price of a dozen regular eggs in many parts of the country — to an excess of $3 — has prompted various lawsuits aimed at egg producers and sellers.

“The Texas attorney general and a group of private individuals in California filed suit separately in late April against the largest egg producer in the United States for what they call excessive, unfair, illegal profits during the coronavirus pandemic,” the Times article said.

In another COVID-19 related flashpoint, Jason DeParle reported on the front page of today’s New York Times that, “The reality of so many Americans running out of food is an alarming reminder of the economic hardship the pandemic has inflicted. But despite their support for spending trillions on other programs to mitigate those hardships, Republicans have balked at a long-term expansion of food stamps — a core feature of the safety net that once enjoyed broad support but is now a source of a highly partisan divide.

“Democrats want to raise food stamp benefits by 15 percent for the duration of the economic crisis, arguing that a similar move during the Great Recession reduced hunger and helped the economy. But Republicans have fought for years to shrink the program, saying that the earlier liberalization led to enduring caseload growth and a backdoor expansion of the welfare state.”

“As Hunger Grows, G.O.P. Pushes Back Over Food Stamps,” by Jason DeParle. Front Page- The New York Times (May 7, 2020).

Today’s article pointed out that, “The debate in Congress is about the size of benefits, not the numbers on the rolls. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, as food stamps are also known, expands automatically to accommodate need.”

More broadly, Reuters writer Crispian Balmer reported today that, “World food prices fell for a third consecutive month in April, hit by the economic and logistical impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the United Nations food agency said on Thursday.

“The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) food priceindex, which measures monthly changes for a basket of cereals,oilseeds, dairy products, meat and sugar, averaged 165.5 points last month, down 3.4% on March.”

Keith Good Photo

Keith Good is the Farm Policy News editor for the farmdoc project. He has previously worked for the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, and compiled the daily News Summary from 2003-2015. He is a graduate of Purdue University (M.S.- Agricultural Economics), and Southern Illinois University School of Law.

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