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May 6, 2020 4:30 PM, EDT

Agriculture Secretary Says Meatpacking Plants Should Reopen Within 10 Days

Sonny Perdue, U.S. agriculture secretary.Sonny Perdue. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

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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 Gov. Kim Reynolds.

Trump said the U.S. has “plenty of supply” of meat and that “we’ll be in great shape” in a week and a half.

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. Absenteeism is spiking at some plants as workers take leave — or quit — out of fear of being infected on the job.

“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 slowdowns have forced grocers, such as Kroger Co. and Costco Wholesale Corp., to ration supplies. Iowa-based Hy-Vee Inc. on May 5 became the latest grocery to put some limits on meat purchases.

Vice President Mike Pence plans to visit Hy-Vee headquarters May 8 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 May 5.

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