Risk of coronavirus meat shortage on the rise

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The risk of a meat shortage caused by the coronavirus pandemic is rising despite President Donald Trump’s executive order telling meat processing plants to remain open. COVID-19 has been spreading among workers at the plants as they work in close quarters with one another.

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Data from USA Today and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting reveals that at least 4,400 employees at 80 meat processing plants have gotten sick over the last several weeks. As a result, 28 of those plants were shut down for at least a day. Thus, the executive order may do little to prevent a meat shortage due to the coronavirus' spread.

Signs of a meat shortage amid coronavirus

USA Today reports that slaughterhouses in the U.S. processed almost 1 million fewer hogs, cattle and sheep over the last week than they did the same week last year. Experts say that marks a new low that's expected to increase "spot" meat shortages at some grocery stores.

The newspaper reports that meat production declined 25% last week compared to a year ago, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. On Wednesday, production was down 42% from the same day last year. Just 283,000 hogs were slaughtered on Wednesday, compared to more than half a million in mid-March.

USA Today reports that poultry seems to be more available. Grocery stores and other retailers were 13.5% out of stock of chicken on Monday, which is an improvement from 14.4% the week before and 25.4% on March 19 when panic buying was at its peak, according to data from Euromonitor International.

Fortune reports that boneless chicken may be harder to find than other cuts of chicken. Poultry processors are spending less time deboning chicken so that they can increase their production and supply.

Meat supply chain isn't broken yet

Tyson Foods Chairman John H. Tyson said earlier this week that "the food supply chain is breaking." However, Jayson Lusk of Purdue University's Department of Agricultural Economics wouldn't go that far. He told USA Today that he "wouldn't say the food system is breaking," although he did say that the meat industry "is in real serious, critical condition at the moment."

He added that the odds of limited availability at some grocery stores are increasing. The possibility of a meat shortage from the coronavirus will depend much on where in the country you live.

Lusk also said that even though the coronavirus is driving a meat shortage, the nation won't run out of meat entirely. He emphasized that Americans should just buy what they need and leave some for others. Panic buying will only serve to exacerbate the coronavirus meat shortage.

He explained that certain grocers may run out of meat because of the suppliers they have contracts with. One grocery store may have a contract with a supplier whose plant is shut down, which would mean that they will run out of meat. On the other hand, the grocery store down the street might have a contract with a supplier that's unaffected by the coronavirus shutdowns, so they will have meat.

Coronavirus meat shortage: “food supply chain is breaking”

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There could soon be a meat shortage in the U.S. due to the coronavirus pandemic. In a full-page ad in the New York Times, Tyson Foods Chairman John H. Tyson warned that “the food supply chain is breaking.”

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Warning about a meat shortage due to coronavirus

He also said that grocery stores will have a "limited supply" of Tyson products available until they are able to open the facilities they have closed due to COVID-19.

"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," he wrote.

He also warned about food waste as farmers "simply will not have anywhere to send their livestock to be processed, when they could have fed the nation."

Tyson temporarily closed a pork processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa last week after over 180 COVID-19 infections were linked to the plant. According to NBC News, hundreds of employees refused to go in because they were worried about catching the coronavirus.

Today reports that an unnamed worker at the Tyson plant said ambulances were coming to the facility in connection with the coronavirus. However, a spokesperson said they were unaware of any ambulances visiting the plant due to COVID-19. NBC News was not able to independently verify that ambulances were at the plant.

Other plants also contribute to meat shortage

Tyson isn't the only meat processor to close plants due to the coronavirus. Smithfield Farms, which is one of the biggest pork producers in the country, said earlier this month that it was shuttering one of its South Dakota processing plants for at least two weeks. The company said at least 300 workers at the facility tested positive for COVID-19.

A JBS USA plant in Colorado has also been closed due to the coronavirus, further increasing concerns about a nationwide meat shortage. Tyson's Iowa pork plant and pork processing plants in Minnesota and South Dakota all closed indefinitely this month. Together, the three plants contribute 15% of the nation's pork production, according to Business Insider.

According to the Associated Press, meat processing plants employ thousands of workers who carve meat side by side, making social distancing essentially impossible. Thus, even though companies have taken steps to reduce the spread of the virus, the risk of catching it is still high for workers at meat processing plants.

The number of companies with infected workers has been increasing, making a meat shortage seem even more likely. A Purdue University economist told the AP that the plant closures should cause a meat shortage immediately, but that "it's a very fluid and volatile situation to keep an eye out for in the days to come."

Chickens to be euthanized as supply chain breaks down

Closures at the nation's meat processing plants aren't the only sign that meat shortages could be on the way. Business Insider reports that worker shortages have led a poultry processing plant in Delaware to euthanize 2 million chickens.

Delmarva Poultry said it considered other options like "allowing another chicken company to transport and process the chickens and taking a partially processed product to rendering facilities to utilize for other animal feed." However, it decided to euthanize the chickens, saying that if it didn't do something, "the birds would outgrow the capacity of the chicken house to hold them." The company also said it will use "approved, humane methods" to euthanize the chickens.

Delmarva farmers raised 609 million chickens last year, so 2 million represents just a small percentage of that total. However, the euthanization demonstrates what Tyson's chairman said about the food supply chain breaking.

Meat shortage could be weeks away

Bloomberg reported on Friday that one-third of the pork capacity in the U.S. is now down, and experts warn that domestic meat shortages are now only weeks away. U.S. facilities aren't the only ones closing down due to the coronavirus.

Brazil, which is the top exporter of chicken and beef in the world, reported its first major closure as a poultry plant operated by JBS SA shut down. Some operations in Canada have also been shut down, including a poultry plant in British Columbia. The U.S., Canada and Brazil together contribute approximately 65% of global meat trade.