- The Washington Times
Monday, April 27, 2020

The nation’s food producers are warning of possible shortages from the COVID-19 crisis disrupting the food supply chain.

The chairman of Tyson Foods Inc., the biggest chicken producer in the U.S., warned of possible food shortages in full-page newspaper ads Sunday, while virus outbreaks among food production workers have shuttered or reduced capacity at processing plants in states across the Midwest.

Faced with dwindling market outlets for their livestock, farmers are forced to euthanize their animals, leaving them with mountains of waste that is difficult to dispose of and facing bankruptcy. Thousands of workers at the various packing plants are also out of work.

“In addition to meat shortages, this is a serious food waste issue,” John H. Tyson wrote in the open letter Sunday. “Farmers across the nation simply will not have anywhere to sell their livestock to be processed, when they could have fed the nation. Millions of animals — chickens, pigs and cattle — will be depopulated because of the closure of our processing facilities. The food supply chain is breaking.”

Indeed, last week saw Tyson temporarily close its biggest pork plant in Iowa, and poultry farmers in the Chesapeake Bay region were forced to kill at least 2 million chickens because of workforce shortages, according to reports.

Meatpacking and food processing plants also have closed in the Dakotas, Nebraska, Washington, Wisconsin and other states.

Food companies have struggled to keep their processing plants open during the coronavirus pandemic that spurred stay at home and social distancing rules in the U.S. and around the world.

The USDA offered large food businesses such as Tyson waivers that allowed it to process more animals than usual, a move that officials hoped would make up for fewer meatpacking lines in operation. But that increased the closeness of workers on the production lines and made them more susceptible to infection, according to unions and other groups.

The waivers have since stopped.

In the meantime, workers got sick at a Wayne Farms facility in Alabama and a Tyson Foods plant in Iowa, prompting the companies to either pare back or suspend operations. A Smithfield plant in South Dakota that turned out some 5% of all the pork sold in the U.S. was also closed in response to worker illnesses.

The JBS Packerland plant in Green Bay closed temporarily Sunday. At least 189 COVID-19 infections had been linked to the facility, according to reports.

The closure left 1,200 workers idle, although the company said they would be paid during suspended operations.

As of April 24, 2,200 illnesses and 17 deaths had been attributed to coronavirus infections at least 48 different meat packing plants, according to a survey by USA Today and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced April 16 that the US government would purchase large surpluses of meat, poultry, vegetable and dairy products and distribute them to the nation’s food banks. At that time, Mr. Pedue pinpointed the supply chain as the problem, not the supply itself.

“We’re doing our best to relocate that adequate supply into the demand channels that can process it for consumer needs, but as you can imagine it’s like flowing down an interstate and things are going well at 60, 65 miles an hour and you have a crash and it all backs up,” he said.

On Monday, the USDA offered little comfort to consumers and delivered a meandering answer when asked about Mr. Tyson’s open letter.

“The food supply chain is a critical industry in the United States and Secretary Perdue fully recognizes the need to keep workers and inspectors safe during the COVID-19 national emergency,” the department said. “He also applauds the true commitment and patriotism our food supply chain workers have shown during this time and the work they continue to do day in and day out. USDA recognizes and supports the efforts of private industry and companies to maintain operational status of their facilities while also maintaining the health and safety of their workforce.”

On April 17, President Trump ordered the USDA to put together a $19 billion coronavirus relief package for farmers and ranchers that the administration said was designed to “maintain the integrity of our food supply chain, and ensure every American continues to receive and have access to the food they need.”

Although some experts insisted privately Mr. Tyson had overstated the direness of the situation, other said the problem is acute and real.

“It’s a real disaster,” said Richard Berman, executive director of the Center for Consumer Freedom that lobbies for fast food chains and other businesses. “The problem with the meat supply is the government can’t buy chickens and hogs like it might lettuce and vegetables.”

That leaves the small farmers who supply the big business processors in an impossible position, Mr. Berman said. Faced with livestock they can neither sell nor afford to feed, farmers are having to make the grim decision to slaughter animals wholesale.

At the moment, the nation faces something like a “rolling blackout” of meat processing facilities deemed essential as national security by the Department of Homeland Security. The crippled nature of the production end can only hurt supply, Mr. Berman said.

“You’re talking about millions of meals as not everybody’s going to be able to eat salads,” he said. “Animal protein could disappare from shelves and a lot of farmers are going to go bankrupt.”

• James Varney can be reached at jvarney@washingtontimes.com.

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