What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Trump wants to keep meat processing plants open. Is that safe?

President Trump has signed an executive order to keep meat processing plants open, but a number of the facilities are currently closed due to outbreaks of COVID-19. What does the pandemic's disruption mean for U.S. agriculture -- and the health of its workers? Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro reports, and William Brangham talks to Amy Mayer of Iowa Public Radio for analysis.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We're going to focus now on the questions around meat processing plants, worker safety and the food supply.

    While President Trump has signed an executive order to keep the plants open, a number of processing facilities remain closed.

    In Minnesota, a pork plant did reopen today briefly, not to resume processing hogs, but to euthanize a growing surplus of animals.

    Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro begins our look with a report on how this is playing out for farmers.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    It's spring planting time in Southern Minnesota. Soon, these vast prairies will sprout soy beans and corn destined for markets around the world.

    But the largest number of consumers they will feed are not human and not far away. Minnesota and neighboring Iowa are among the largest pork-producing regions in the world.

    Mike Patterson's family has been doing this for multiple generations. They are part of an elaborate food chain that ends, in this case, at the Smithfield plant 200 miles away in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

    Like more than two dozen meatpacking facilities that have seen closure across the country, this one has been shuttered since April 11 after a COVID-19 outbreak. So has another nearby pork plant, JBS, in Worthington, Minnesota.

    Patterson says he's looking at staggering losses.

  • Mike Patterson:

    If we weren't able to harvest any of the hogs on our farm, we're looking at probably $450,000. And we're — we're not a big operation.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    This barn is one of three on Patterson farm. It holds 1,000 animals. And it's here that you get a sense of the scale of the industry that they are part of.

    The Smithfield plant in South Dakota, to where these pigs would normally go, takes in 20,000 pigs each day.

  • Mike Patterson:

    I don't think I appreciated the efficiency of the whole system, and when one piece of that system goes down. You know, I knew it, but, boy, I didn't — I maybe didn't appreciate it as much.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    While plant workers continue to receive 80 percent of their wages during the shutdown, it's hundreds of hog farmers like Patterson who say they stand to lose the most.

    Animals are brought to these so-called finishing barns from nurseries. Here, they are raised over 16 to 20 weeks to a nearly exact weight required by the packing houses like Smithfield. As they're moved out, a new batch of young animals is ready to take their place.

  • Mike Patterson:

    Obviously, those barns aren't empty. So where do those pigs go?

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    So, you have some ugly options.

  • Mike Patterson:

    Definitely. I know, in the industry, there's been talk of euthanasia of swine or depopulation of harvest-ready hogs. That's something that we, as farmers, just absolutely, we don't want it to happen.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    A couple of hours away, the much smaller Sobocinski farm has just about 300 pigs, whose owner says they're really thriving.

  • Paul Sobocinski:

    Give the animals a little bit more freedom to move about.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Paul Sobocinski decided two decades ago to scale back from what he calls the industrialized system that now produces much of the nation's meat.

    Has it been the right decision financially?

  • Paul Sobocinski:

    This isn't perfect, but, overall, it's been a good decision.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    His animals are processed at a small nearby slaughterhouse, where no one has tested positive for COVID-19.

    The meat is sold through a national network of independent producers called Niman's Ranch. Sobocinski has long been an activist against a system that he says has concentrated power and profit in a few corporate hands, at the expense of both laborers and farmers.

  • Paul Sobocinski:

    Meat prices went down substantially because of the coronavirus. Who's grabbing all that money? Has food come down in the grocery store? No, it hasn't.

    I think it's important that we retool what we're doing out here. We need more local processing, so more of that is done here in the community. It helps build the community.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    For Patterson, however, it boils down to keeping pork prices as low as possible.

  • Mike Patterson:

    I understand that local piece of it, and I appreciate that. But how do we feed the masses and do it cheaply? You can't do that on a smaller scale. You need the — you need the efficiencies of size of scale to be able to get that done.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    The debate is not new and may well return post-COVID-19. Just how much are American consumers willing to pay for their food? And has the pandemic changed attitudes?

    But, more immediately, Patterson and hundreds of fellow hog farmers are watching anxiously for word on when the two mega-factories can reopen, tweaking the diet of their animals to slow their weight gain.

  • Mike Patterson:

    We have maybe bought a week to 10 days, trying everything we can to slow them down.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    When the plants do reopen, however, workers could be farther apart on the production line to prevent the spread of COVID-19. That would slow down the line, which, in turn, would mean fewer animals at the plant and more, Patterson says, in his barns with nowhere to go.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," this is Fred de Sam Lazaro in Kenyon, Minnesota.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Fred's reporting is a partnership with the Under-Told Stories Project at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.

    William Brangham explores a number of the questions we just heard raised.

  • William Brangham:

    And, for that, I am joined by Amy Mayer of Iowa Public Radio and Harvest Public Media.

    Amy, thanks for being on the "NewsHour" again.

    President Trump said meatpacking plants and meat processing plants are part of the country's critical infrastructure. What does his executive order mean? What do we know?

  • Amy Mayer:

    It means that these plants are expected to stay open. It means they fall into a category of employer that has certain responsibilities, but also certain privileges, for staying open.

    There are some unknowns. The plants obviously have to prioritize worker safety and their employees' health and well-being, but it does give them the obligation, but also the opportunity, to stay open and have the force of the federal government behind them in that decision.

  • William Brangham:

    But it's not totally clear if the government could — if, say, one plant or one company was resistant to doing so, it's not clear if the federal government has the authority to force them to do so.

  • Amy Mayer:

    It's the reopening that seems unclear.

    There are some plants that are currently closed because of outbreaks of COVID-19. Most of those companies would prefer to be open. They have either closed because of just the sheer number of cases or, in some cases, pressure from local and state governments.

    With this federal order, certainly, there wouldn't — the local and state governments wouldn't be able to pressure them to close, because they would have this federal mandate to be open.

    What remains a little bit unclear now is, for the ones that are currently in closure, will they have to speed up their reopenings because of the order?

  • William Brangham:

    And we know that Tyson Foods, one of the major meat manufacturers in the country, warned that there might be millions and millions of pounds of meat that basically drops out of that supply chain.

    Do you have a sense of the impact this might have on consumers? I mean, theoretically, that's what the president is acting on behalf of to keep a steady supply of food in stores.

  • Amy Mayer:

    That's right.

    I have heard some conflicting things about what the impact on consumers could be. We hear large numbers from the meat plants. I don't think consumers really have a sense of how much meat goes out in a day anyway, so what might be lost is sort of a difficult number to process.

    We do know, for example, that there's millions of pounds of meat in cold storage. It's not the types of meat that perhaps we're most accustomed to buying at the grocery store. It may be more processed meat or cuts that normally are sent to export markets. But there's that.

    There was also a large redirection of meat that was already in the supply chain because it's no longer going to restaurants and institutional settings. A lot of that, the government is buying to send to food banks and for other people in need. Some of that could get diverted to the retail sector.

    There could be shortages. And in some communities, people at the grocery stores have already seen meat cases emptying more quickly than usual. Of course, part of that is also shopper behavior. We're going to the store less often, so we're buying more when we go.

  • William Brangham:

    We know, as we were saying, thousands of workers at different plants have gotten sick. And if they're forced to reopen, there's talk of, can this work be done in a way where there is more social distancing or where workers can wear protective gear?

    Do you know whether that's possible? Can you run a modern meat processing facility and protect workers from a virus like this?

  • Amy Mayer:

    It's becoming increasingly clear to me that you cannot run the plant at your usual full capacity and meet the social distancing and other requirements to prevent virus spread.

    For example, I heard a worker describe today being on the brake line in a beef plant. That's literally where workers are taking halves of cattle and then cutting them into smaller pieces, and then they get moved along to be made into the sorts of cuts we might recognize.

    He said, in that environment, workers are typically one-and-a-half to two feet away from each other, working hard, physically, constantly all day at chilled room temperatures. So they're sweating because they're working hard, but they're breathing into these face shields they have been given, which then causes them fogging, so they can't see.

    So it's really not practical to work in that PPE, which is so necessary. You can see the domino effect here.

    But to change your operations, so that those workers could be six feet apart, would mean to process fewer animals than you would expect to process. So, these are decisions that the plants are going to have to evaluate.

    But if they can't shut down to rearrange their work structures, I don't see how they ever get to a point where they could implement these really dramatic changes in the workplace situation.

    On the other hand, there are lines where companies have been able to put up Plexiglas shield between workers. That's obviously something that can help, especially when the workers are sitting side by side. But that could provide some protection.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Amy Mayer of Iowa Public Radio and Harvest Public Media, thank you very much for your time.

  • Amy Mayer:

    Thanks for having me.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest