The Trump Administration’s Legal Moves to Prevent a Meat Shortage, Explained

Contrary to misunderstandings, the actions fall short of ordering meatpacking facilities to reopen despite Covid-19 outbreaks among workers.

(The New York Times | April 29, 2020) The Trump administration moved this week to try to mitigate the effects from the shutdowns of beef, pork and poultry processing facilities amid the Covid-19 pandemic that have potentially endangered an important part of the nation’s food supply chain. But the policy moves have generated confusion.

“We are, in many regards, in uncharted territory,” said James E. Baker, a former legal adviser to the National Security Council and a professor of national security law at Syracuse University …

… While some of the meatpacking plants have shut down voluntarily after outbreaks to clean their facilities, others have been ordered closed by local health officials. But those closures happened before the federal guidelines. Going forward, if state or local regulators created stricter rules, this maneuver could provide a basis to argue to a judge that the federal standards pre-empted the local ones.

How that would go is an open question. A 1950 ruling from a Federal District Court in Minnesota suggested that if there were a conflict with local rules, a Defense Production Act arrangement would prevail. But Mr. Baker noted that the act’s allocation powers “have not been used in a long time, nor have they been fully litigated.”

Still, he added, it might not be put to the test because there would also be pressures on all involved — the federal and state governments, companies and workers — to reach an accommodation rather than get mired in court …

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