US meat processing plants have been ordered to stay open by president Donald Trump amid intensifying concerns in the country about food availability.
US pork analysts estimated that 36% of the country’s pig slaughter capacity was not in operation on Monday, raising fears that up to 700,000 pigs a day would have to be killed on farm, leading to a shortage of food.
These and abattoirs in other sectors have shut in recent weeks after they were identified as coronavirus hotspots, with the disease spreading rapidly among the tightly packed workforce.
The presidential executive order, which compels companies to stay open for national security reasons, may protect companies from being legally liable for workforce safety if they are found to have exposed staff to the coronavirus, but unions have said serious concerns remain about how to prevent the spread of disease in factories.
However, Mike Brown, president of the trade association National Chicken Council, said that companies were doing everything they could to keep people safe.
He said: “Companies began weeks ago enacting additional measures to keep workers safe, such as increased cleaning and sanitation of the plants, temperature checks before entering facilities, social distancing measures, installing plastic dividers between work stations, paid leave for sick or at-risk employees and issuing masks and other personal protective gear.
“While doing everything we can to keep employees safe and healthy, the biggest challenge has been inconsistencies among the states and many localities in enforcing Centre for Disease Control guidelines in plants that add to confusion and can lead to unnecessary shutdowns.”
Four political leaders from Iowa – the biggest pig producing state in the country – wrote to vice-president Mike Pence this week to ask for financial aid for any animals killed on farm, as well as assistance with disposal costs.