As the coronavirus pandemic affects every aspect of commercial life, experts warn of a potential meat shortage as the meatpacking industry is hit hard with COVID-19 and temporary closures. The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union estimated Tuesday that 20 meatpacking and food processing workers have died of coronavirus so far amid the pandemic, and John Tyson, chairman of the Tyson board, warned of limited meat supply if plant shortages continue, as per CNN.
In a New York Times full-page spread that ran Sunday, Tyson warned of a supply chain breakdown: "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 wrote. "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."
The UFCW recently sent a letter to Vice President Mike Pence calling for an urgent response from the White House Coronavirus Task Force to prioritize five safety actions targeted toward the meatpacking industry. These actions would increase coronavirus testing in meatpacking workers, provide them with priority access to personal protective equipment, halt line speed waivers, mandate social distancing orders and isolate workers with symptoms or who have tested positive for COVID-19.
"America’s meatpacking workers and our nation’s food supply are in greater danger every day that companies and leaders fail to act during this outbreak. It is clear that our food supply chain is threatened, and that is why our country’s elected and corporate leaders must act now," UFCW International President Marc Perrone said in a statement.
"Tyson and every company across this vital industry, must immediately join with UFCW in calling for federal and state elected leaders to designate these frontline workers as first responders.," he continued. "Temporary first responder status ensures these workers have priority access to the COVID-19 testing and protective equipment they need to continue doing these essential jobs. Our federal leaders must enforce clear guidelines to ensure every employer lives up to the high safety standards these workers deserve and the American people expect."
In addition, Perrone called for increased transparency on the part of the meatpacking companies themselves. He wrote, "Meatpacking companies must increase transparency around their safety efforts to ensure that meatpacking workers, elected leaders, and the communities they serve know exactly what steps they are taking to keep workers safe and our food supply secure. Simply put, given the nature of this COVID-19 crisis, words are not enough. American workers and families across the country cannot wait any longer. Our elected leaders and companies across the industry must act now."