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Democratic Attorneys General Urge Stricter Safety at Meat Plants

May 12, 2020, 6:09 PM

Twenty Democratic attorneys general urged President Donald Trump to enforce stricter safety standards for meat-processing workers under his executive order reopening packing plants.

“The industry’s workers are risking their lives to maintain production in these facilities under extremely unsafe working conditions,” the attorneys general wrote Trump in a letter Tuesday.

The letter, signed by attorneys general for 19 states and the District of Columbia, cited news reports that at least 45 meat processing workers have died from coronavirus since the pandemic began and at least 10,000 cases have been tied to meatpacking plants.

The letter calls on Trump to require priority coronavirus testing for all meat-processing workers covered by the executive order, immediate access to personal protective equipotent for the workers, and mandatory six-feet space for social distancing at facilities or, where not possible, installation of plexiglass barriers.

“If the president wants to force workers to toil away in extremely unsafe conditions, then he must enforce the protections they deserve,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, one of the signatories of the letter, said in a statement. “It is unacceptable to expect working families to bear the burden of this crisis alone.”

Read More: Infections Near U.S. Meat Plants Rise at Twice the National Rate

Trump issued an executive order April 28 calling on meat processors to reopen after a series of shutdowns due to the pandemic dramatically reduced slaughter capacity, sending pork and beef prices surging while farmers with no place to sell hogs began culling herds at huge financial losses.

Following the order, The U.S. Agriculture Department asked all meat processors to come up with plans to meet safety guidelines for the industry released by the CDC and reopen their facilities. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said Friday that 14 major meat processing facilities were reopening.

The attorneys general said the CDC standards are effectively voluntary at the moment.

“Without making these standards mandatory and taking decisive action to enforce them, the Administration will fail in its duty to provide meaningful protection to workers that have been deemed essential to maintaining our food supply,” they wrote. “The toll may be thousands more falling victim to this disease.”

Large portions of the workforces at some U.S. meat-processing facilities have tested positive for the virus. A Tyson Foods Inc. plant in Perry, Iowa, had 730 cases, representing 58% of employees, Sarah Reisetter, deputy director for the state’s health department, said last Tuesday. At another Tyson plant, in Waterloo, Iowa, there were 1,031 reported cases among about 2,800 employees as of Thursday, said Joseph Pikora, disease surveillance manager for the Black Hawk county health department. Both plants reopened last week.

Conditions at meatpacking plants -- including difficulty maintaining social distance and adhering to heightened cleaning standards -- contributed to the spread of the virus, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded in a May 1 report.

To contact the reporter on this story:
Mike Dorning in Washington at mdorning@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Joe Sobczyk at jsobczyk@bloomberg.net

James Attwood, Millie Munshi

© 2020 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Used with permission.