Meat processors urge patience as they wait for USDA guidance

Fear and confusion over whether shelves will be left empty if meat plants can't stay open have been widespread in the days since President Donald Trump ordered processing plants to stay open. But suppliers say not to worry. The supply of meat products is there they're just waiting on direction from the federal government.

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Michigan produces tens of millions of chickens, pork, beef and lamb each year. While those numbers are dwarfed by the amount of crop harvested in Michigan, they still represent dozens of farms and hundreds of workers who need the supply chain of food to remain reliable. Right now, producers say the trouble isn't with processing plants in state but those out of state that have closed over coronavirus concern.

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“There’s concern that the plants aren't open and we really need to do everything we can,” Mary Kelpinski, CEO of the Michigan Pork Producers Association said. “Within whoever's power it is to get those plants, open as quickly as possible and as safely as possible. I mean employee safety is definitely number one, but our food supplies pretty, pretty important too.”

But with operations expected to continue under a new normal, fears over worker safety have grown. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which did not return Local 4 calls for comment, has criticized the order saying workers still aren’t protected enough. Producers assured protection is on the way as the state continues to flatten the curve and can begin to redirect personal protective equipment to plants.

“Plants have really stepped up to the plate,’ Kelpinksi said. “they are making sure that all employees have, you know, facemask that they need them, regular masks like we've been using and dividers between the workspaces so there's Plexiglas between employees, they've also done things like staggering start times with operations expected to continue with normal fears of a worker safety have grown.

Kelpinksi said all meat industries are waiting anxiously for direction from the USDA which told them is making a set of guidelines and protocols for producers and plants to follow a top priority of Sec. Sonny Purdue adding they expect to get guidance in the coming days.

In the meantime, producers are urging consumers to buy meat at their normal pace or slightly increase their purchases to offset the amount of meat not being sold to restaurants and food services which continue to navigate the statewide stay-at-home order. They say customers may notice a difference in the kinds of cuts, away from some of the more popular cuts to ones that are easier to process but stress meat will stay on store shelves.

You can read the CDC’s official guide for meat and poultry processing workers here.