Stampede Meat Inc.’s Sunland Park, NM, meat production plant was ordered closed from Nov. 3 to 17 by the state Department of Health because it was associated with six COVID-19 infections in late October involving the facility’s employees.
The two-week closure order may expire before Stampede gets any relief from the federal courts. It went to the U.S. District Court for New Mexico on Nov. 6, seeking emergency intervention. New Mexico must respond to Stampede’s Emergency Motion for a Temporary Restraining Order, but any scheduled hearing won’t likely come until after the closure order expires.
“The Court finds it appropriate to set an expedited briefing schedule on the motion, rather than issue an emergency order on an ex parte basis,” said U.S. District Judge Martha Vazquez.
Stampede argued in court filings that its Sunland Park facility has a responsibility to remain open under the federal Defense Production Act and its employees are “essential” as a facility which is regulated by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).
“Throughout the pandemic, Stampede Meat has deftly balanced its role as a vital piece of critical national infrastructure with its commitment to the safety and wellbeing of its employees and the local community,” company lawyers say.The meat company’s COVID-19 operation plan was approved by the state in May.
“The state of New Mexico has consistently shared the view of the federal government that Stampede Meat is critical to the nation’s response to this pandemic, repeatedly designating Stampede Meat an “essential business,” it continued. “Yet three days ago, the defendants sought to immediately close Stampede Meat for fourteen days pursuant to a recently issued public health order purportedly requiring the closure of certain businesses experiencing four or more positive COVID-19 tests in a fourteen-day period — which for Stampede Meat represents less than 1 percent of its Sunland Park workforce.“
“Additionally, even when the United States Department of Agriculture offered to speak with the Department of Health about lending testing resources to Stampede Meat to enable it to more efficiently and effectively identify potentially infected employees, while still remaining operational to address the nation’s food supply, the Department of Health, through Defendant Jimenez, declined,” it said.
Stampede says New Mexico is prohibited from closing federally regulated meat and poultry processing facilities that are operating in compliance with federal guidelines
“The Stampede Meat Closure Order also violates the U.S. Constitution and New Mexico Constitution because it has been issued in an arbitrary and capricious manner, absent due process,” Stampede lawyers wrote.
Stampede officials believe they are likely to succeed on the merits of the claim for a declaratory judgment.
“Stampede Meat has already attempted — repeatedly — to work with the defendants to address any legitimate concerns. It has been met with silence aside from this most recent direction to fully shut down operations — a direction that ignores the express orders of the President of the United States and the Secretary of Agriculture — or risk civil and criminal penalties,” it continues.
Based in Bridgeview, IL, Stampede is one of the largest manufacturers of portion-controlled proteins, including beef, chicken, turkey, and pork, and meals that include vegetables, soups, and alternative proteins.
Stampede Meat specializes in custom-made, center-of-the-plate beef, pork, and chicken products for the needs of restaurants, hospitality, retail, supermarket, casino, home delivery, and other industries. Its customers include Costco, Wal-Mart, Firehouse Subs, Applebee’s, Panda Express, International House of Pancakes, Denny’s, Schwan’s Foods, and others.
Billy J. Jimenez, acting cabinet secretary of the New Mexico Department of Health named in his official capacity, and other New Mexico officials are the defendants.
Stampede’s own COVID-19 task force began work on March 20 this year. It’s current procedures include
- conducting daily screening and temperature checks;
- requiring employees to wear three-tiered facial protection including face masks, neck warmers pulled over their nose and mouth, and plexiglass face shields;
- sanitizing high touch-point areas every 30 minutes;
- modifying procedures to increase social distancing throughout its facilities;
- providing plastic dividers in the cafeteria area;
- implementing aggressive contact tracing including through the use of video to trace interactions and quarantining protocols;
- nightly CDC-compliant sanitizing of the entire facility; and
- taking various steps to maximize social distancing, including reconfiguring some areas of production.
New Mexico policy, as of Oct. 22, is that any business having four employees infected with COVID-19 within 14 days must immediately close all business operations for two weeks.
During the two-week period before the state order, 550 to 575 people were working at Stampede.
The company dismisses the notion the facility is a public health risk.
“On the contrary, Stampede Meat is a private facility, closed to the public, and enforces strict distancing, personal protective equipment, and other measures to maximize safety,” the company said in the complaint. “And it does so while providing essential, critical food supplies to the country.”
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