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Meatpacking Plants Should Reopen Within 10 Days, USDA Says

Jordan Fabian

(Bloomberg) -- U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said he expects U.S. meatpacking plants to fully resume operations within a week to 10 days, during a meeting with President Donald Trump and Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds.

Trump said the U.S. has “plenty of supply” of meat. “Within a week and a half, we’ll be in great shape. Maybe sooner,” the president told reporters in the Oval Office.

Iowa is home to some of the nation’s largest meat plants. Trump last week signed an executive order that directs slaughterhouses and processing facilities to remain open, deeming them essential to the country’s meat supply. But the move set off a controversy with labor unions who say their workers face unsafe conditions in the plants.

More than half of workers at some American meat plants tested positive for coronavirus, which has slowed production even as some facilities reopen. While Smithfield Foods Inc. is restarting its giant Sioux Falls slaughterhouse on Thursday, it doesn’t expect to return to full operations until late May. Absenteeism is spiking at some plants as workers take leave out of fear of being infected.

“I’d say probably a week to 10 days before we’re fully back up,” Perdue said.

Prices for wholesale beef and pork have jumped more than 20% since Trump issued the order to keep meatpackers running during the pandemic.

Trump is prodding states to reopen their economies, even as cases and deaths continue to mount in the U.S. coronavirus outbreak, the world’s largest. Reynolds, a Republican, announced last week that certain businesses -- including restaurants, malls and fitness centers in roughly three quarters of the state -- could open with limited capacity. She also lifted restrictions on religious services statewide, as long as they follow social distancing guidelines.

Iowa is crucial to Trump’s re-election bid and the White House is paying close attention to the situation there.

Shortages caused by closures and slow-downs have forced grocers, such as Kroger Co. to Costco Wholesale Corp., to ration supplies. Iowa-based Hy-Vee Inc. on Tuesday became the latest grocery to put some limits on meat purchases.

Wendy’s Co. this week reported shortages of some menu items, including hamburgers, at some locations. Trump said he would call his friend and billionaire investor Nelson Peltz, who is the chairman of Wendy’s board, about the issue.

“They’re going to be OK,” Trump said when asked about Wendy’s. “Basically you’re saying in a week and a half, you think everything’s going to be good, or sooner.”

Vice President Mike Pence plans to visit Hy-Vee headquarters on Friday to discuss food supply as part of a trip to the state. He also plans to meet with faith leaders in order “to encourage houses of worship to responsibly reopen,” his office said.

Iowa has reported more than 1,600 cases of the virus at just four meatpacking plants. At a Tyson Foods Inc. plant in Perry, Iowa, nearly 58% of employees tested for the virus were infected, a state health official said Tuesday.

(Updates with Smithfield re-opening in fourth paragraph.)

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