Former agriculture secretary Vilsack addresses concerns over meat shortage at grocery stores

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Former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on “America’s Newsroom” on Wednesday that during the coronavirus outbreak employees at meat processing plants “are essential workers and they need essential safety precautions.”

Vilsack, CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, made the comment one day after President Trump signed an executive order to ensure meat processing plants stay open during the coronavirus pandemic.

The order invoked the Defense Production Act, deeming the facilities a part of the country’s critical infrastructure as concerns mounted that the U.S. food supply chain will be disrupted because of the contagion. The federal government also is supplying additional personal protective gear to plant employees.

“The food and ag [agriculture] industry in the United States is 28 percent of the workforce directly or indirectly and 20 percent of the economy,” Vilsack noted. “So it’s not only just a situation relative to food and food supply, it’s also about jobs, farm income and food prices so it is important that we try to maintain and keep these plants open.”

He went on to say that he thinks the challenge will be for processing facilities “to put in place enough precautions and safety measures to make sure that their workers are safe because at the end of the day this is essential work, these are essential workers and they need essential safety precautions.”

Vilsack also reacted to an editorial in The Los Angeles Times published Wednesday which claimed that “Trump’s meat supply fix is a recipe for coronavirus disaster.”

“The order appears to impose no new health or safety obligations on the plants, leaving workers as vulnerable as ever to the virus,” the editorial board wrote. “This disregard for the health and safety of people already working in appalling conditions in unconscionable.”

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Vilsack said it is up to the federal government and the meat processing facilities to tackle safety issues, calling it a “joint responsibility.”

“I think the government, obviously through OSHA [The Occupational Safety and Health Administration], has a responsibility to maintain certain state workplaces but, it’s in the company’s best interest to do what they need to do to protect workers,” Vilsack said.

He acknowledged that meat processing plants might have to slow down the production line, install protective equipment, give their employees masks and other protective equipment and do more testing, which could be expensive.

Vilsack said if that is the case he thinks, “just like any other industry, it can look to the federal government for reimbursement as the airline industry and other industries have looked for.”

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“At the end of the day, the safety of the worker is directly related to the ability to produce product so it’s in everyone’s best interest that we keep our workers safe and it’s in everyone’s best interest that we keep these facilities open or get them reopened as quickly as possible because it’s jobs, farm income and it's affordable food,” he said.

Fox News’ Andrew O’Reilly, Fox Business’ Blake Burman and The Associated Press contributed to this report.