CHIPPEWA FALLS, Wis. — Wisconsin Farmers Union issued the following statement in response to the President’s executive order on April 28 declaring meatpacking plants “critical infrastructure” under the Federal Defense Production Act:
One of the striking trends in the Wisconsin COVID-19 case count has been the alarming spike of cases in Brown County. That cluster of cases, now numbering over 1,000, stemmed from the JBS Packerland meat plant, leading to the plant’s closure on April 26th. Nationwide, labor conditions in meatpacking plants have caused outbreaks sickening more than 4,300 workers, killing at least 20, and prompting 21 plants to close. WFU was therefore alarmed when, on April 28, President Trump declared meat processing plants like JBS Packerland “critical infrastructure.” This action calls into question the ability of state and local authorities to shut down such plants, even when continued operation constitutes a public health risk.
WFU President Darin Von Ruden noted that the vast majority of the nation’s meat processing plants have been able to continue to serve both farmers and consumers while keeping their employees safe. “Why is the closure of just a fraction of the nation’s meatpacking plants considered a national security problem? It is a problem only because these plants have a disproportionate market share and political power.”
“Farmers who had been sending livestock to these shuttered processing plants find themselves in a terrible situation,” noted Kara O’Connor, Government Relations Director for Wisconsin Farmers Union. “The animals that they have raised for weeks, months, or years are at market weight and have nowhere to go. However,” continued O’Connor, “we shouldn’t make a terrible situation even worse by requiring workers to report to workplaces that are unsafe. Farmers don’t want the protection of their livelihoods to come at the expense of someone else’s life.”
The alarming spread of COVID-19 in meatpacking plants is just the latest chapter in a longstanding pattern of corporate indifference to worker health and safety by monopolistic companies like JBS, Smithfield, and Tyson. The very same working conditions that have made large meatpacking plants some of the most dangerous workplaces in America — overcrowding and excessive line speed — have also made large meatpackers hot spots for COVID-19 transmission. Slowing down the processing line and spacing workers further apart would not only protect them from COVID-19, but also from the lacerations, scalding, falls, and repetitive stress injuries that have put meat processing plant workers at risk for years. Moreover, slowing processing line speed would reduce the number of foodborne illness outbreaks caused by contaminated meat. “Protecting consumers from e coli and Salmonella, and protecting the reputation of the high-quality meat that farmers produce, while also protecting workers, makes slowing down the line a win all around,” said Von Ruden.
WFU believes it is clear that the meatpacking industry cannot be trusted to police itself. The outsized influence of a handful of powerful processors allows them not only to dictate prices paid by consumers and received by farmers, but also the regulations that should be keeping workers and members of the public safe. The president’s “critical infrastructure” designation should not in any way enable meatpackers to avoid liability for unsafe working conditions.
WFU calls for swift action from state and federal authorities to protect worker safety, and also to investigate market manipulation and unfair pricing and trade practices in the meat processing industry. The family farm organization therefore urges the following:
U.S. Department of Agriculture:
- Require meatpacking plants to follow all OSHA and CDC guidelines on minimizing Covid-19 transmission risk as a matter of law — not simply as voluntary guidelines.
- Reduce line speed to allow for greater spacing between employees.
- If the plants are essential, then the workers must be considered essential too.
- Prioritize provision of Personal Protective Equipment to meatpacking plant workers.
- Ensure that employees in meatpacking plants have access to comprehensive testing for Coronavirus, paid time off to care for themselves or family members who are ill, worker’s compensation, unemployment insurance, and the assurance of a job to return to if they take time off due to illness.
U.S. Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission, State agencies entrusted with enforcing antitrust and fair business practice laws:
- Investigate anticompetitive and unfair trade practices — in particular, why the wholesale and retail price of meat was increasing during the month of March 2020, while prices paid to farmers were decreasing.
- Use Antitrust regulatory authority to break up the “big four” meatpackers
- Dedicate additional resources to supporting small- and medium-scale local meat processing capacity as a matter of national security.
- Buy meat and other agricultural products directly from farmers whenever possible. Find farmers near you through farmers’ markets and resources such as Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin or your regional Farm Fresh Atlas.
“The Covid-19 pandemic and resulting economic downturn has brought to light the fragility of our consolidated food system,” said Von Ruden. “Farmers and workers need to stand together to reconstruct a diverse food system that protects workers and ensures that farmers can continue to get healthy and safe food to families.”
— Wisconsin Farmers Union
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