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Tyson warns of U.S. meat shortage

by Nathan Owens | April 28, 2020 at 7:24 a.m.
FILE - In this Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2009, file photo, a Tyson Foods, Inc., truck is parked at a food warehouse in Little Rock.

Tyson Foods Inc. Chairman John Tyson warned in full-page newspaper advertisements Sunday that the nation is facing a meat shortage caused by the coronavirus pandemic and a rising number of idled processing plants.

"The food supply chain is breaking," Tyson said in the letter, published in The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "Millions of pounds of meat will disappear from the supply chain," he said, resulting in fewer products available for grocery stores.

Tyson also described the work the company has done to protect its workers from the virus and asked for more government assistance in doing so.

Thousands of meatpacking workers, who often stand shoulder-to-shoulder doing repetitive jobs, have been sickened by the virus in recent weeks, leading to temporary or indefinite closures at plants owned by Tyson, Smithfield and JBS. Several workers have died. The federal government issued new guidance Sunday to help prevent the virus from spreading in meat processing plants.

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In the past two months, 13 meat plants have closed because workers have contracted the virus, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represents more than 250,000 meatpacking and food processing workers. The closures have restricted U.S. slaughter capacity by 10% for beef and 25% for pork, and the industry is on alert that this may worsen.

"Farmers across the nation simply will not have anywhere to sell their livestock to be processed," Tyson said in the ad. "Millions of animals -- chickens, pigs and cattle -- will be depopulated because of the closure of our processing plants."

The meat industry has been struggling with stark losses during the pandemic and companies have been urging Congress to provide more financial assistance.

The National Pork Producers Council said hog farmers are expected to lose about $37 per hog, or $5 billion in total, because of the virus, and they fear the assistance the government has provided is not enough. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association has requested additional funding for ranchers.

Tyson said in the ad that "government bodies at the national, state, county and city levels must unite in a comprehensive, thoughtful and productive way to allow our team members to work in safety."

Restaurants, hotels and schools account for about half of the nation's food consumption, but their demand for product has evaporated during the pandemic, according to economists. Farmers have been letting produce rot, dumping milk, and smashing eggs because nobody is buying. Meatpacking plant closures have only worsened the situation for cattle ranchers and pig herders.

Tyson closed its largest pork plant in Iowa last week, citing a "combination of worker absenteeism, covid-19 cases and community concerns." It also closed a pork plant in Indiana and a third plant in Washington last week. Local media outlets reported more than 100 positive cases at each plant.

Despite growing concerns, Tyson made the case for keeping its plants operating during the pandemic, listing efforts taken to protect workers at its beef, chicken and pork plants. Tyson said it has installed infrared walk-through temperature scanners at most of its locations, supplied protective masks for workers and relaxed attendance policies "to encourage workers to stay home when they're feeling sick or feel uneasy about coming to work."

Tyson and others have come under fire, however, from unions that represent their workers, which argue that not enough has been done to help. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union has urged Vice President Mike Pence to enact safety measures such as increased worker testing at the plants, mandated social distancing and slowed line speeds.

"These tragic deaths and infections have to be a wake-up call for our leaders to ensure the food supply is safe," said Mark Lauritsen, director of the union's meatpacking and food safety division. More than 5,000 meatpacking workers have been sickened and 10 have died, according to the union.

"Every day we worry about the virus," said Rhonda Trevino, who has worked at a Cargill beef plant in Dallas for 25 years. "We have anxiety about the people we are around."

She said management has been helpful, adding clear plastic dividers to the processing lines and adding temperature checks at plant entrances. "What is happening at our plants must happen at others," Trevino said.

Despite Tyson and others taking steps to improve worker safety during the pandemic, guidelines for meatpacking facilities weren't issued until Sunday. The U.S. Department of Labor and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended personal protective equipment, known as PPE, be provided to workers, among other actions.

A spokesman for the CDC did not disclose how many meatpacking workers have died or been sickened by the virus, but the agency plans to update the public in the coming days.

Federal and state health officials toured two of Tyson's chicken plants in Northwest Arkansas on Friday to see Tyson's efforts to combat the spread of covid-19 firsthand.

"It hasn't been easy, and it's not over," John Tyson said in Sunday's ad. "But I have faith that together, we'll get through this."

A Section on 04/28/2020

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