The “meat shortage” calls are getting louder.
“The food supply chain is breaking”, John H. Tyson, chairman of Tyson Foods’ executive board warned, in a full-page ad that ran Sunday in The Washington Post, The New York Times and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
“We have a responsibility to feed our country”, he went on to declare. “It is as essential as healthcare”.
Tyson’s stark assessment of the situation echoes remarks made by Smithfield CEO Ken Sullivan who, earlier this month, suggested that a society without ample pork is no society at all.
“We are either going to produce food or not, even in the face of COVID-19”, an irritated Sullivan said, after acquiescing to calls for the temporary closure of Smithfield’s Sioux Falls, South Dakota, facility.
To be clear, there was a very good reason why the governor asked Sullivan to close that facility. At the time, more than half of Minnehaha County coronavirus cases were linked to the plant. Some 780 workers tested positive for the virus. Two of them are dead. It took weeks for the plant to close after the first worker tested positive.
Since then, a wave of closures at processing facilities across the country has disrupted the supply chain, pushing prices for some wholesale meats skyward, and imperiling farmers who have nowhere to send their animals. Feeder pig prices plummeted to the lowest in 20 months last week.
In Minnesota, it’s so bad that some farmers have resorted to “destroying” full-grown hogs. Meanwhile, in Maryland and Delaware, millions (literally) of chickens face a similar fate. Consider the following, from The Baltimore Sun:
Nearly 2 million chickens at farms in Maryland and Delaware will be destroyed instead of processed for meat, a result of coronavirus-related staffing shortages at processing plants.
“With reduced staffing, many plants are not able to harvest chickens at the pace they planned for when placing those chicks in chicken houses several weeks ago,” before social distancing measures took effect, a trade group for the Delmarva poultry industry said in a statement.
In some cases more birds are awaiting harvesting than processors can handle, said the group, Delmarva Poultry Industry. One company, which the group did not name, has been left with no other option than to tell some of its growers they would need to “depopulate.”
The trade group called depopulation a “difficult but necessary decision.” The birds are killed in chicken houses on farms instead of being taken to plants.
Tyson suggested this is likely to become commonplace going forward, leading to shortages and bare shelves at grocery stores.
“As pork, beef and chicken plants are being forced to close, even for short periods of time, millions of pounds of meat will disappear from the supply chain [and] as a result, there will be limited supply of our products available in grocery stores until we are able to reopen our facilities”, Sunday’s ad goes on to warn.
Tyson last week announced a series of actions, including shuttering a pair of pork processing plants and a critical beef facility in Washington. US wholesale beef touched a record high last Thursday and wholesale pork logged its largest weekly advance in around eight years.
“Farmers across the nation simply will not have anywhere to sell their livestock to be processed, when they could have fed the nation”, Tyson went on to lament, in the ad.
This is obviously an attempt to instill the notion that the company’s fate is synonymous with that of America more generally. It’s not. Nobody is going to die if there are temporary shortages of meat at supermarkets. It will be inconvenient, that’s for sure. Indeed, my own diet may have to be altered as a result. But I, like you, will survive.
However, it is obviously a problem if farmers (who were already struggling after the trade war effectively cut them off from their most important export market) are pushed even closer to the brink of financial and psychological ruin. In that regard, Tyson is certainly justified in warning that the ongoing closure of its plants will mean “millions of animals – chickens, pigs and cattle – will be depopulated”.
“This is a challenge that should not be ignored. Our plants must remain operational so that we can supply food to our families in America”, the ad flatly demands, before noting that “this is a delicate balance because Tyson Foods places team member safety as our top priority”.
Apparently, there’s some discrepancy between what Tyson says about the measures it’s taken to protect workers and what those workers are telling the press. The Washington Post reported Sunday that some of the now-shuttered processing facilities didn’t supply masks to workers last month (or earlier this month), despite the rapid spread of COVID-19 among employees. A handful of workers told The Post the guidelines weren’t clear when it comes to who should come to work and under what circumstances.
Tyson defended itself against those allegations in the ad, which you can read for yourself below.
As for Smithfield, the company is now being sued by “Jane Doe” and a nonprofit for allegedly operating a plant in Milan, Missouri, “in a manner that contributes” to the spread of the virus.
“I am afraid for my health and safety, as well as the health and safety of people I am in contact with and the larger community because of the way in which Smithfield is managing the Plant in response to COVID-19”, a declaration submitted on behalf of Jane Doe reads.
As ABC explains, “the workers at the Milan plant charge they are forced to work ‘shoulder to shoulder’, there isn’t enough personal protective equipment for everyone, there’s inadequate time allotted to wash hands, workers are discouraged from taking sick leave and Smithfield has failed to implement plans in Milan for testing and contact tracing”.
“Smithfield may perceive that these policies allow the company to continue producing and packaging as much pork as possible for as cheaply as possible”, the lawsuit reads. “In fact, however, the costs of Smithfield’s conduct are extraordinary, but they are borne by Smithfield’s workers, their family members, and the broader community”.
Save the pork at all costs, apparently.
The CDC’s recommendations for the company’s Sioux Falls plant are embedded in full below the Tyson add. Smithfield said last week it would respond to the guidance when it finishes its own assessment.