Beef carcasses at a meat processing plant. (USDA photo by Preston Keres; public domain, via Flickr)
In the latest of several actions by Sen. Tammy Baldwin to pressure the federal government for closer regulation of the meatpacking industry, the Wisconsin Democrat signed on Friday to a letter calling on Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to address worker safety.
The letter, authored by Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and signed by 29 Senate Democrats, was prompted by the recent executive order from President Donald Trump invoking the Defense Production Act to require meatpacking plants — many of which have been forced to shut down as a result of COVID-19 infections among their workers — to reopen in order to ensure the availability of meat in grocery stores.
“While we recognize the importance of keeping these plants running, it is wrong and shortsighted to use the Defense Production Act to mandate plants to stay open without effectively addressing worker safety issues,” the letter states. “Prematurely reopening or pressuring unsafe plants to stay open could expose employees to COVID-19. This could then sicken more workers and their families, spread the virus in their communities, and cause further damage to our food supply chain, farmers and ranchers, and rural economies.”
The letter refers to a briefing that USDA officials conducted with staff of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee at which the agriculture department participants “could not confirm” that meatpacking plants reopened after Trump issued the order were following guidance from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
USDA officials also haven’t talked to workers or unions about meatpacking industry safety problems, the letter states. The USDA officials “repeatedly said that worker safety was OSHA’s responsibility,” but never said they had spoken to OSHA about reopening 12 plants this week or visiting them in advance.
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