An executive order signed by President Trump on Tuesday could mean some support for the nation's — and Oklahoma's — beleaguered meat industry as it weathers the coronavirus pandemic.
The order prevents local and state regulators from ordering the closure of any meat processing plant that meets federal guidelines for health and safety as determined by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Some meat processing facilities across the country have been closed due to outbreaks of COVID-19 among their workforce. The pandemic caused Tyson Foods to shutter its largest pork plant, in Waterloo, Iowa; in Sioux Falls, S.D., a Smithfield pork plant became the epicenter of that state's outbreak.
The effects on the food industry could be felt especially hard in Oklahoma, where cattle is king.
"It is important to people in the state because the dominant category in Oklahoma is livestock production," said Jake Nelson, executive director of the Oklahoma-Texas Meat Producers Association and meat processing specialist at the Oklahoma State University Robert M. Kerr Food & Agricultural Products Center.
"That's where the vast number of people are affected, because we are a beef cattle state."
Nelson said the pandemic is having impacts all up and down the supply chain, and while Oklahoma does have processors, like the Seaboard Foods pork plant in Guymon, cattlemen are hurting just as much.
"Everyone has a supply chain — you get your products from someone upstream," Nelson said. "That supply chain gets severely disrupted when the large, high-volume processors are disrupted."
"It trickles down. Retailers, retail grocers, some of the processors in Oklahoma are struggling to have the assurance that they're going to be able to get what they order from their suppliers," Nelson said.
Nelson said he thinks Trump's executive order will protect the industry from suffering under heavyhanded local mandates to shut down meat processing facilities in the name of public health amid the pandemic, and that that will have a benefit to the American consumer as more states ease restrictions and attempt a return to normal.
"I think they'll see a price spike, just because of the fundamentals of supply and demand," Nelson said. "But with this executive order, allowing the meat industry to continue to process and maintain, that should not be a ginormous spike."
Cattle has historically been both the highest-valued commodity and highest-valued export in Oklahoma's agricultural sector. According to a USDA report, in January of 2019, the more than 5 million heads of cattle and calves in Oklahoma had a value of $5.35 billion.