COVID-19: Meat Plants Sought Federal Protection

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Professor James Brudney shared his expert opinion with USA Today on the executive order issued that allowed meatpacking plants to remain open despite the pandemic and health concerns in April.

Even as thousands of their employees fell ill with COVID-19, meatpacking executives pressured federal regulators to help keep their plants open, according to a trove of emails obtained by USA TODAY.

The emails show how a major meatpacking trade group, the North American Meat Institute, provided the U.S. Department of Agriculture with a draft version of an executive order that would allow plants to remain open. A week later, President Donald Trump signed an order with similar language, which caused confusion over whether local health authorities could close plants due to COVID-19 outbreaks.

Experts said the records showed that workers — the people most affected by the virus — were not consulted.

An industry approaching a federal agency with a draft regulation or other policy isn’t unusual, said James Brudney, a professor at Fordham Law School and former chief counsel of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Labor.

But proposed regulations are vetted in a more public setting than executive orders. It is strange, he said, how quickly the draft executive order seemed to move without input from other stakeholders in and outside government.

“Wealthy interest groups lobby decision makers in Washington all the time,” he said. “They might get a draft from industry, but it wouldn’t just sail through because there would be other parties involved. That seems not to have happened here.”

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