Is it time to worry about a broken food supply chain?



Yes, it may well be time to be worried, or at least concerned, about the U.S. food supply chain. But, don’t take my word for it — look at what Tyson Foods’ Chairman of the Board said Sunday. He said the food supply chain is breaking due to the coronavirus pandemic. He sounded the alarm in a full-page advertisement in three newspapers.

“The food supply chain is breaking,” wrote board chairman John Tyson in a full-page advertisement published Sunday in The New York Times, Washington Post and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

US farmers don’t have anywhere to sell their livestock, he said, adding that “millions of animals — chickens, pigs and cattle — will be depopulated because of the closure of our processing facilities.”

“There will be limited supply of our products available in grocery stores until we are able to reopen our facilities that are currently closed,” Tyson wrote.

Tyson Foods employs about 100,000 people. Last week two pork processing plants were closed, one in Waterloo, Iowa and the other in Logansport, Indiana, so that the employees could be tested for the coronavirus. The Waterloo plant employs 2,800 workers, many of whom were calling out sick. Public pressure was felt by Tyson Foods to close the plant, including from the city’s mayor. The Black Hawk County health department linked the Tyson plant to 182 of the county’s 374 cases of the virus. The company has indefinitely stopped production but is continuing to pay the employees. The plant’s re-opening will depend on testing results, among other factors.

“Despite our continued efforts to keep our people safe while fulfilling our critical role of feeding American families, the combination of worker absenteeism, Covid-19 cases and community concerns has resulted in our decision to stop production,” Tyson Fresh Meats group president Steve Stouffer said in a statement on the Waterloo facility.

Mr. Stouffer said that the plant closure “has significant ramifications beyond our company.” The supply chain includes independent farmers, truckers, distributors, and grocers.

The mayor of Logansport, Indiana was in favor of Tyson closing its pork processing plant there. He said the action would save lives. The Logansport plant alone produces 3 million pounds of pork per day, and works with 250 independent farmers, the company said.

Mayor Hart of Waterloo worries that the closure may have been too late for some workers, many of whom are minorities. He calls it a humanitarian effort, not a political one. The Cass County Health Department is working with Tyson to test more than 2200 employees of the plant. The processing center closed for a day for deep cleaning but a county health official expressed concern that employees were not as cautious about spreading the virus at work as they may be at home.

“This is the action we have been waiting for,” Hart said in a statement emailed to CNN Business. “Tyson’s closing their plant will prove to be a positive step forward in preparing our community for the flattening the curve.”

Earlier this month, Tyson closed its Columbus Junction, Iowa, pork plant after more than 24 workers there became infected with Covid-19. Livestock is being diverted to other plants in the region to minimize a negative impact on production.

Smithfield has shut down pork processing plants, too. John Tyson warns that millions of pounds of meat will disappear from the food supply chain with the closures and grocery stores will experience shortages of products.

It isn’t just pork processing. Also affected by the coronavirus pandemic are chicken and beef production. Two million chickens on farms in Delaware and Maryland will be “de-populated” due to a lack of employees at chicken processing plants. Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc. released a statement.

The reduced employee attendance at the company’s plants is a result of “additional community cases of COVID-19, additional testing, and people practicing the ‘stay home if you’re sick’ social distancing guidance from public health officials,” the statement reads.

The chickens will be depopulated “using approved, humane methods” that are accepted by the American Veterinary Medical Association and all state and local guidelines, the company said.

Yesterday, another beef processing plant announced its closure, this time in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

JBS USA announced Sunday that the JBS Packerland plant would be closed temporarily. As of Monday, 255 employees at the plant tested positive for COVID-19, said Brown County Health Department spokeswoman Claire Paprocki. There were also 130 confirmed cases among workers at meatpacker American Foods Group in Green Bay and another 17 employees at sausage maker Salm Partners in Denmark, about 20 miles away, Paprocki said.

The JBS Packerland plant employs more than 1,200 people and feeds nearly 3.2 million people per day, the company said. Employees will be paid during the closure, the Green Bay Press Gazette reported.

JBS earlier closed plants in Souderton, Pennsylvania; Greeley, Colorado; and Worthington, Minnesota. The first two plants have since reopened.

So far, pork processing plants appear to be the hardest hit. JBS pork processing in Worthington, Minnesota, one of the three largest pork processing plants in the country, is offline indefinitely.

I don’t think it is alarmist to at least be concerned about shortages of meat at this point, especially as the virus spreads across the country and more testing becomes available. Companies won’t want to take the risks of liability to keep processing plants open if employees are testing positive for the coronavirus. Consumers don’t want sick workers processing their food, either. If there aren’t enough of healthy workers to process the meat, empty grocery store shelves aren’t far behind. Let’s hope there isn’t panic buying that will exacerbate shortages, like with toilet paper.





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