The shuttering of meat and food processing plants due to workers contracting coronavirus is testing the limits of the US’s ability to feed its citizens, according to a letter published in The New York Times.
John Tyson, the chairman of Tyson Food, says the forced closures of meat plants due to the pandemic will create significant disruptions to the nation’s supply chain and potentially leave people with limited options for buying meat.
“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,” Mr Tyson wrote. “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.”
The letter goes on to suggest that the disruption to the supply chain will leave farmers without a place to sell their livestock, and will result in the “depopulation” – industry jargon for killing and disposing of the animals – of “millions of animals”.
“The food supply chain is breaking,” Mr Tyson wrote.
The workers at the meat company have, in some instances, been hit hard by the virus.
On 22 April, Tyson Food had to shut down one of its pork processing plants in Iowa after several workers there tested positive for coronavirus.
Reports on Monday suggested that 111 workers at a Tyson meat processing plant in Washington state have tested positive for coronavirus.
There have been at least 15 plant closures so far due to the virus, accounting for at least 25 per cent of the country’s meat production.
“The food supply chain is a critical industry in the United States and secretary Perdue fully recognises the need to keep workers and inspectors safe during the Covid-19 national emergency,” the spokesperson said. “USDA recognises and supports the efforts of private industry and companies to maintain operational status of their facilities while also maintaining the safety and health of their work force.”
While the USDA has pledged to protect the supply chain, the agency’s inaction may be adding to the strain it must endure.
Millions of pounds of food are going to waste in fields due to supply chain disruption while reliance on food banks has skyrocketed, yet the USDA appears to have only begun responding to the crisis in recent weeks.
The USDA unveiled its $19bn (£14.8bn) aid program – with $3bn set aside specifically for food – in mid-April. However, federal officials speaking with Politico expect that the food purchased by the USDA will take nearly a month to reach its intended recipients.
Until then, families struggling with hunger will be forced to find alternatives and growers who’ve been hit by the drop in demand will have to do their best to hold out.
The USDA has pledged to purchase $100m in food from producers each month for the remainder of the 2020 fiscal year, although it remains to be seen when the agency will actually put that plan into action.
Restaurant groups and food-service businesses issued a plea to the USDA to buy their perishable goods to prevent them from going to waste in mid-March. The plea did not stir the USDA to make any purchases at that time.
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