In a full-page newspaper ad published in The Washington Post, the New York Times and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Sunday, Tyson Foods — which sells products ranging from frozen chicken nuggets to cuts of raw pork — said that the coronavirus pandemic may disrupt the U.S. food supply chain and raise the price of meat.
The company defended itself from criticism that it has not adequately protected its workers and pleaded for more government assistance in doing so.
“The food supply chain is breaking,” wrote John Tyson, chairman of the company’s executive board. “We have a responsibility to feed our country. It is as essential as healthcare. 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. This is a delicate balance because Tyson Foods places team member safety as our top priority.”
The company warned that shuttering processing plants would cause “millions of pounds of meat” to disappear from the markets, reducing what’s available on grocery store shelves and raising prices. Farmers may have to kill and dispose of cows, pigs and chickens that were bred for the closed slaughterhouses, the company claimed, and those animals’ meat would go to waste.
The troubles stem from the novel coronavirus outbreak, which has ripped through the meatpacking factories, sickening hundreds of workers and forcing meat processing plant closures at slaughterhouses owned by Tyson, Smithfield Foods and JBS.
The ad called for more government help in finding a “way to allow our team members to work in safety without fear, panic or worry.”
The concerns raised by Tyson have been growing within the industry for weeks as at least 13 plants have shuttered since March, according to United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents more than 350,000 workers in the meatpacking and manufacturing industries.
Tyson Foods closed its largest pork processing plant in Iowa last week, citing a “combination of worker absenteeism, COVID-19 cases and community concerns.” The company also paused production at a beef processing plant in Washington state, and a third plant in Indiana last week.
The Sunday ad attempted to refute claims of unsafe working conditions by describing the measures Tyson Foods has taken to prevent the spread of coronavirus within its slaughterhouses.
“If you’re not in a casket, they want you there.”
This accountability story by @taylormtelford & @kimberlykindy of meat processing plants is so important & powerful that Tyson Foods felt the need to take out a full-page Sunday ad to explain themselves. https://t.co/uI9QGdBzsA pic.twitter.com/VEBvKOGZck
— Tracy Jan (@TracyJan) April 26, 2020
The Washington Post reported Sunday that many of the now-closed meat-processing plants, including Tyson’s Iowa pork facility, had failed to provide masks to workers in March and early April, even though the novel coronavirus was already spreading among employees at a shocking clip. Some workers told The Post they were given confusing instructions about when to return to work or told to come in while sick.
Tyson Foods previously told The Post that the company has required employees to wear masks since April 15. In the full-page ad, the company also said it had encouraged workers to stay home if they felt ill and implemented social distancing practices inside their plants after forming a coronavirus task force in January.
The meat industry has been pushing for government assistance as slaughterhouses have closed. The Tyson Foods ad urged “government bodies at the national, state, county and city levels” to find ways to help the industry through the pandemic.
The National Pork Producers Council pushed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to buy pork products as part of its coronavirus relief package and asked for pork processors to gain access to the Small Business Administration’s Payroll Protection Program.
The NPPC has already succeeded in securing $3 billion in product purchases and $1.6 billion in payments to hog farmers, but believes that sum isn’t enough.
A signal of the troubles confronting the meat industry is an increase in stock price for Beyond Meats, a company that makes plant-based substitutes for meat such as its well-known “Beyond Burger.”
After falling in March as stay-at-home restrictions were implemented around the states, Beyond Meats’ stock price soared by 41% between April 17 and April 24. It was the company’s largest weekly gain since going public almost a year ago, Bloomberg reported, but did not fully restore the price to its level before social distancing restrictions began.
Since the pandemic reached the U.S., grocery stores have been struggling to fill shelves as worried shoppers load up on food. Some grocers have already seen meat prices jump as supplies have constricted, particularly for pork and beef.
And many farmers unexpectedly have more food than they can sell, after schools, hotels, and restaurants closed to encourage social distancing. Already, dairy farmers have been forced to dump excess milk and chicken processors have had to smash hundreds of thousands of eggs each week.
Tyson Foods claimed in its Sunday ad that if the closed plants don’t reopen soon, farmers may have to “depopulate” cows, pigs and chickens that were destined for the dinner table. Industry experts have estimated that the existing closures have already reduced the production of beef and pork by up to 25 percent.
The Food and Drug Administration said on April 14 that there are “no nationwide shortages of food,” although the agency acknowledged that consumers may see some products in short supply at grocery stores as stocks are temporarily low, in part because of people panic-buying staples like milk, eggs and flour. The FDA did not immediately respond to an inquiry early Monday about the impact of the recent meat processing plant closures.
Tyson Foods said in a statement last week the company is testing its employees for the novel coronavirus before reopening its shuttered plants. The company has also installed infrared scanners to detect fevers and has said employees will have their temperatures checked before shifts when the plants resume work.
“It hasn’t been easy and it’s not over,” John Tyson wrote in Sunday’s ad. “But I have faith that together, we’ll get through this.”