Meat lines could be in the country's future as the coronavirus wreaks havoc on the industry, prompting the closures or curtailing of operations at pork, beef and poultry processing plants across the country. Tyson Foods Chairman John H. Tyson spelled it out in full-page newspaper advertisements, stating: "The food supply chain is breaking."
The executive's warning came days after Tyson shut down its large pork processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa, after multiple employees tested positive for COVID-19.
The closure is among dozens involving major companies, with a Smithfield Foods pork plant in South Dakota also out of commission. JBS USA temporarily shut its meatpacking plant in Green Bay, Wisconsin, on Sunday after health officials traced at least 189 positive cases to the facility last week.
As of April 27 there have been at least 4,135 reported positive cases tied to meatpacking facilities at 75 plants in 25 states and at least 18 reported worker deaths at nine plants in nine states, according to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.
About a quarter of the country's U.S. pork production and 10% of its beef output has now been shuttered, according to the United Food & Commercial Workers, the union that represents 250,000 meatpacking and poultry plant worker.
"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," Chairman Tyson wrote in a letter published Sunday as an advertisement in newspapers including the New York Times. "As a result, there will be limited supply of our products available in grocery stores until we are able to reopen our facilities that are currently closed."
Food waste is also part of the equation, according to the Arkansas-based Tyson, among the country's biggest meat producers. "Farmers across the nation simply will not have anywhere to sell their livestock to be processed, when they could have fed the nation," the executive wrote.
"Millions of animals —chickens, pigs and cattle— will be depopulated because of the closure of our processing facilities," he added. "The food supply chain is breaking."
The word "depopulated" — meaning humanely killed — is already in play on several major farms in Delaware and Maryland, where two million chickens will be depopulated due to reduced employee attendance at nearby Delmarva Poultry Industry plants, a local poultry trade group said in a statement.
With about 1,800 members in Delaware and on the Maryland and Virginia Eastern Shore, the Delmarva chicken industry last year produced more than 600 million chickens values at about $3.5 billion.