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Tyson Seeks Coordinated Fix for Food Supply Chain That’s ‘Breaking’

5 min read

Tyson Foods Inc. Chairman John Tyson on Sunday called on public and private leaders to address challenges emerging in the food supply chain amid COVID-19, adding that “the food supply chain is breaking.”

Tyson made the comments in full-page advertisements that ran in the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A copy of his remarks was also posted on the publicly traded meat processor’s website here.

The post comes as Tyson Foods has had to temporarily close some of its beef and pork plants amid workforce COVID-19 outbreaks. Last week, the company closed its largest pork processing plant, in Waterloo, Iowa, after alarms by local health and law enforcement officials. At the time, more than 180 infections had been linked to the plant, which employs 2,800 workers.

Other food companies have had to shutter plants amid the pandemic. Smithfield Foods closed a plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and JBS USA stopped work in Worthington, Minnesota. Others have stayed open or resumed production after pauses for testing and cleaning. 

As of early last week, an estimated 25% of U.S. pork processing capacity had been closed or idled due to reduced operating speed, said Steve Meyer, an economist with Kerns and Associates in Ames, Iowa. Tyson’s Waterloo plant can process 19,500 hogs per day, accounting for 3.9% of U.S. pork processing capacity, according to the National Pork Board.

As a result, prices are starting to increase and analysts warn that customers could soon see shortages of certain products at grocery stores. John Tyson made similar points in his Sunday ad.

“In small communities around the country where we employ over 100,000 hard-working men and women, we’re being forced to shutter our doors,” Tyson wrote. “This means one thing — the food supply chain is vulnerable. 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. 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.”

He also warned that farmers across the nation may not have anywhere to sell their livestock to be processed, resulting in “millions of animals” — chickens, pigs and cattle — becoming “depopulated because of the closure of our processing facilities.”

Tyson wrote that the company has a responsibility to feed the world, something “as essential as healthcare.” He said governments at the national, state, county and city levels “must unite in a comprehensive, thoughtful and productive way to allow our team members to work in safety without fear, panic or worry. The private and public sectors must come together.”

“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,” Tyson wrote. “This is a delicate balance because Tyson Foods places team member safety as our top priority.”

Will Close If Necessary

A Tyson Foods spokesman told Arkansas Business on Monday that Tyson wrote the letter because he cares about “Tyson team members and their families.”

“The letter encourages government leaders to unite to address food supply chain challenges that include plant closings, a backlog of livestock and protein shortages,” Gary Mickelson, Tyson Foods’ director of media relations, said. “We are taking a proactive approach to balance safety and production by moving aggressively with testing and plant closures when necessary.” 

Mickelson said that while Tyson was one of the first food companies to implement COVID-19 safety measures for employees, “in some locations this was not enough and we decided to close several of our facilities.

“Although each of these closures puts the food supply at risk, this was the right decision to keep our team members safe,” Mickelson said. “Other food processors have also closed some of their facilities, further contributing to the fragility of our food supply system.”

Mickelson said plants that remain open are running at reduced levels of production, and more closures would “stretch an already strained food supply system — but if it is the right decision to shut down more facilities, we will do so.” 

In his Sunday ad, John Tyson outlined steps he said the company was taking to protect workers. The company said it takes workers’ temperatures and has installed infrared walkthrough temperature scanners at some facilities; requires face coverings at all facilities; conducts daily deep cleaning and sanitizing; has implemented social distancing measures; and has installed workstation dividers and provided more break room space.

“We’ve also relaxed our attendance policy to encourage workers to stay at home when they’re sick or feel uneasy about coming to work,” he wrote. “And in a few circumstances where we haven’t been able to meet our own standards, we’ve voluntarily closed operations, only resuming when adequate safety measures were in place.”

On Friday, Tyson Foods took local and state health officials on tours of two of its Arkansas plants — its Berry Street facility in Springdale and its Chick-N-Quick plant in Rogers.

Tyson issued a news release on Monday about the tours, in which Dr. Richard McMullen, the state environmental health director at the Arkansas Department of Health, called Tyson “an industry leader” whose safety measures illustrate best practices “to keep employees” safe.

‘Critical’ Industry in Arkansas

Speaking at his Monday news briefing on the state’s COVID-19 response, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he’d been in touch with Tyson Foods and other companies in Arkansas’ food processing industry. He said there are more than 60 food processing plants in Arkansas.

The governor said Department of Health Secretary Dr. Nathaniel Smith has worked with food processors to come up with the right guidelines to operate. Smith cited the Friday visit to the Tyson Foods plants in northwest Arkansas said he thinks state health officials and company executives are “on the same page” with regard to worker safety. 

While Smith said the department has plans to deal with a cluster of COVID-19 cases at food plants, Hutchinson said he expects they won’t see significant closures, and none have closed in Arkansas so far. 

“We haven’t had any go down in Arkansas,” he said. “While they’ve had some of them go down in other states, we hope that we don’t have them go down in Arkansas, and if they do, we can work with them to get them back in operation quickly because they are very essential.”

Smith said Arkansas’ low case rate helps explain why the state hasn’t seen major outbreaks at food plants. He said spread of the disease inside a plant can often depend on how much is spreading in the surrounding community.

“If you’ve got a rip-roaring epidemic around a plant, it’s going to be really, really hard to keep it out of the plant,” Smith said. “In our case, Arkansas has one of the lowest case rates per population in the country, and that helps our plants in terms of keeping COVID-19 out of our plants and keeping it contained if it comes in.” 

He said Arkansas has also done a good job reaching traditionally hard-to-reach cultural groups who make up a big part of the food processing workforce, including the Hispanic and Marshallese populations.

Smith noted that during the two-day “testing surge” over the weekend, the state tested 250 members of Arkansas’ Marshallese population, finding four positive cases.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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