Tyson Foods is the latest meat processing plant closing down in the United States due to fears of coronavirus infections among employees. The company closed plants in Waterloo, Iowa, and Logansport, Indiana, last week so that workers in those facilities could be tested for the virus. Tyson employs roughly 100,000 workers.
This follows the news from last week that Smithfield Foods, the world’s biggest pork processor, also shut down its Sioux Falls, South Dakota plant, which employs about 3,700 people and supplies the US with 4% to 5% of its pork. About 240 Smithfield employees were reported sick.
Tyson’s Waterloo plant closure came after many of its 2,800 workers had been calling in sick. When local health authorities linked the Tyson plant to 182 cases — nearly half of the county’s total — the public pressure was too much for Tyson to ignore.
For consumers, this could mean a shortage of meat.
How Real Is the Shortage?
“The food supply chain is breaking,” board chairman John Tyson wrote in a full-page advertisement published Sunday in The New York Times, Washington Post and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He warned that there would be a limited supply of their products in grocery stores because “millions of animals — chickens, pigs and cattle — will be depopulated because of the closure of our processing facilities.”
This echoed the sentiments of Kenneth Sullivan, CEO of Smithfield, who released a statement about their company closures.
“The closure of this facility, combined with a growing list of other protein plants that have shuttered across our industry, is pushing our country perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply,” said Sullivan. “It is impossible to keep our grocery stores stocked if our plants are not running.”
Smithfield employees account for more than half of the coronavirus cases in South Dakota. That’s according to South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, who, along with Sioux Falls mayor Paul TenHaken, recommended Smithfield shut down their plant for at least two weeks.
South Dakota isn’t alone. The coronavirus has also led to the shuttering of meat processing plants in Iowa and Pennsylvania.
The Human Cost
Tyson, one of the world’s biggest meat processors, has had previously closed its plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa, and is now diverting livestock that was headed to Columbus Junction to other meat processing facilities in the area. The idea is to reduce the impact on production.
But not everyone is worried about a meat shortage. “I don’t think the shutdowns so far have been enough to be noticeable [to consumers],” Steve Meyer, an economist with commodity firm Kerns and Associates said. “We have a lot of pork, we have a lot of chicken, we have a lot of beef in cold storage. We can draw on that should we have some shortages.”
Yet, South Carolina is currently dealing with an infectious and fatal strain of bird flu — unrelated to the coronavirus — in a commercial turkey flock.
In response, state officials quarantined the farm. Further actions, per Joel Brandenberger, president of the National Turkey Federation: “The flock was quickly depopulated and will not enter the marketplace. Thorough disinfecting and cleaning procedures have already been initiated on-premises, as well as surveillance of commercial flocks in the surrounding area.”
Brandenberger assured, “This occurrence poses no threat to public health. Turkey products remain safe and nutritious.”