Trump invokes Defense Production Act to keep meat-processing plants open amid fears of supply shortage

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President Trump on Tuesday 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.

Despite Trump’s reassurances that the food supply chain was not being affected by the outbreak, the announcement of the executive order followed numerous reports that meat processing plants around the country were struggling to stay open without the workers who have become infected by the novel coronavirus.

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The plants have employed thousands of people often working side by side carving meat, so it’s been difficult to apply social-distancing rules. Such environments, according to medical professionals, kept high the risk of catching the virus even as companies took steps to increase worker protections.

The list of companies dealing with infected workers has been growing every day at plants across the country.

Industry leaders acknowledged that the U.S. food chain rarely has been so stressed and nobody may be sure about the future, even as they tried to dispel concerns about shortages.

On Sunday, Tyson Foods ran a full-page advertisement in the New York Times and other newspapers outlining the difficulty of producing meat while keeping more than 100,000 workers safe and shutting some plants.

“This means one thing — the food supply chain is vulnerable,” the statement read. “As pork, beef and chicken plants are being forced to close, even for short periods of time, millions of pounds of meat will disappear from the supply chain.”

COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, has infected hundreds of workers at meat-processing plants and forced some of the largest manufacturers to close and others to slow production. While the output at beef and poultry plants has diminished, pork plants in the Midwest have been hit especially hard. The viral outbreaks have persisted despite efforts by the meat companies to keep workers at home with pay if they become sick.

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The 15 largest pork-packing plants account for 60 percent of all pork processed, so when even one of those plants closes for days or weeks, the consequences ripple across the industry. That has become abundantly clear with two of the nation's biggest plants now closed: Tyson suspended operations at its plant in Waterloo, Iowa, and Smithfield Foods halted production at its plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Each plant can butcher nearly 20,000 hogs a day. Some plants have reopened days after cleaning.

The result is that the nation's pork processing capacity had declined by about 25 percent as of last week, said Steve Meyer, an industry economist with Kerns and Associates in Ames, Iowa.

Fox News' Blake Burman and The Associated Press contributed to this report.