Coronavirus illnesses to date may touch as little as 4 percent of meat and poultry employment, but it been enough to roil the industry over how much protection the plants need to be safe.

Actions taken in tight proximity to one another by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and U.S. District Court Judge Greg Kays resolve some issues for the approximately 130,000 professionals who slaughter and process meat and poultry in the United States.

Perdue late Tuesday notified the states and territories through their governors that he’s ordered meat and poultry processors to implement the protocols and practices that were jointly issued on April 26 by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ( CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Also on May 5, U.S. District Court Judge Grey Kays ruled in favor of Smithfield Fresh Meats, finding under the primary-jurisdiction doctrine that OSHA regulates worksite safety. He also said the Plaintiff, an un-named Smithfield employee at Milan, MO, failed to meet the burden of proof required to obtain an injunction.

Kays also ruled that making “Jane Doe” reveal her identity would not “serve any important purpose.” 

The meat and poultry sector has experienced about 5,000 COVID-19 illnesses with as many as 20 deaths. Production cutbacks and temporary closures have interrupted shipments around the country.

President Donald J. Trump signed an Executive Order on April 28 putting the meat and poultry industries under the Defense Production Act and putting Perdue in charge.  

“I understand that state and local leaders are working diligently to protect and maintain the well- being of their citizens, including those who work on the front lines in critical industries, such as meat and poultry processing, ” Perdue wrote the governors. “It is essential that we work together to ensure the health and safety of those who help keep food on the table during this unprecedented time.”

 “Effective immediately, I have directed meat and poultry processors to utilize the guidance issued on Sunday, April 26, 2020, by CDC and OSHA specific to the meat and poultry processing industry to implement practices and protocols for staying operational or resuming operations while safeguarding the health of the workers and the community,” Perdue wrote.

He said USDA has also directed meat and poultry processing plants currently closed and without a clear timetable for near-term reopening to submit to USDA written documentation of their protocol, developed based on the CDC/OSHA guidance, and resume operations as soon as they are able after implementing the CDC/OSHA guidance for the protection of workers. 

“USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service’s (FSIS) mission is to inspect meat and poultry products to ensure that they are wholesome and safe. For this reason, USDA is partnering with OSHA and CDC as they are our nation’s federally recognized public health and worker safety authorities.”

Perdue also applauded Judge Kays’s ruling that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has the primary jurisdiction over worker’s safety in meat processing plants across the country during the COVID-19 national emergency.

 “This ruling affirms that OSHA is the primary entity that has authority over worker’s safety,” Perdue said. “Since President Trump issued his Executive Order last week to keep these critical facilities operating, USDA has been working hand in hand with OSHA and the CDC to ensure meat processing facilities are abiding by federal guidelines. This ruling is directly in line with what the federal government has been calling for companies and communities to do in light of the president’s Executive Order. If we continue to work together, we can maintain the critical supply of meat and poultry for Americans while also protecting worker health and safety.”

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