Yesterday, President Donald Trump signed a five-page executive order invoking the Defense Production Act to keep meatpacking plants run by companies such as Tyson Foods (NYSE:TSN), Hormel (NYSE:HRL), Smithfield Foods, Inc., and others open in the face of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. The order designates the food processing facilities and slaughterhouses as critical infrastructure that must remain operational, while augmenting liability protection for the companies involved.

The order comes as the novel coronavirus has infected approximately 6,500 workers in meatpacking and other food plants, killing at least 20 people. In response to the pandemic, Tyson shuttered its biggest pork facility last Wednesday, one of a series of closures. Hog farmers may be slammed by $5 billion in losses this year as they euthanize pigs.

The exterior of the White House.

Image source: Getty Images.

Trump's executive order is intended to sustain the U.S. food supply and provide legal protection to food processors. But the order triggered pushback from unions and workers, some of whom predict plant employees may simply refuse to go to work.

The 250,000-strong United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) responded to the order in a statement yesterday, calling on the administration to "put the safety of our country's meatpacking workers first." Pointing out the food supply cannot be secure without healthy workers, the union called for full paid sick leave, federal monitoring of facilities, daily testing, and measures to "compel all meatpacking companies to provide the highest level of protective equipment through access to the federal stockpile of PPE."

The union also noted 22 large meatpacking facilities have closed temporarily during March and April, cutting slaughter capacity by 25% for pork and 10% for beef.