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The U.S. Meat Industry Is on the Brink of Disaster Because of COVID-19

Worker illnesses at meat processing plants have led to deaths, facility closures, and a critically strained supply chain

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Supermarket shelves with almost no meat products.
An empty meat aisle at Publix during the coronavirus pandemic.
Photo: Joni Hanebutt/Shutterstock

COVID-19 pressures on the meat supply chain are coming to a head

For weeks, meat processing plants have been hit by COVID-19 cases and subsequent closures, pushing pork, beef, and chicken meat supply chains to the limit as workers fall ill and, in some cases, die.

Recent investigations by the Washington Post, USA Today, and other outlets found that working conditions and corporate policies at major meat processing plants — including those of Tyson Foods, JBS USA, and Smithfield Foods — turned facilities into “infection hot spots.” According to the Post, employees claimed that managers encouraged them to work while sick, and personal protective equipment wasn’t required or distributed until April. There have been COVID-19 outbreaks at at least 48 plants across the U.S., with more than 2,200 workers testing positive for the virus, the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting found.

As plants temporarily shutter amid such outbreaks, many fear that there will be meat shortages across the country. The Post reports that industry experts have estimated that beef and pork production are already down 25 percent due to closures. In a full-page ad taken out in the Post, the New York Times, and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Sunday, John Tyson, the chairman of Tyson Foods’ executive board, warned that “millions of pounds of meat” would disappear from the supply chain. “The food supply chain is breaking,” Tyson wrote, calling for government aid (while also defending his company’s worker safety measures).

In the ad, Tyson also warned that “millions of animals — chickens, pigs and cattle — will be populated because of the closure of our processing facilities.” Depopulation (a euphemism for “the destruction of large numbers of animals”) has already begun, with two million chickens on farms in Delaware and Maryland slated to be euthanized due to a lack of employees at chicken processing plants.

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