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Tyson chairman warns of 'meat shortages' as industry faces scrutiny for worker safety during coronavirus

Nathan Bomey
USA TODAY

The chairman of Tyson Foods is warning of "meat shortages" due to what he calls a breakdown in the food supply chain stemming from coronavirus outbreaks in factories throughout the country.

John H. Tyson wrote in a blog post and full-page advertisement published Sunday in The New York Times, The Washington Post and elsewhere, that the food supply chain is "breaking" and "vulnerable."

He also defended the company's employee safety practices, as the meat industry has come under scrutiny for endangering workers and causing outbreaks of COVID-19.

“We have a responsibility to feed our country. It is as essential as healthcare. This is a challenge that should not be ignored," he wrote. "Our plants must remain operational so that we can supply food to our families in America. This is a delicate balance because Tyson Foods places team member safety as our top priority.”

Tyson also warned of a "serious food waste issue" as "millions of animals – chickens, pigs and cattle – will be depopulated because of the closure of our processing facilities."

Workers are separated by sheeting at a Tyson Foods plant in Camilla, Georgia.

PETA Executive Vice President Tracy Reiman said Tyson is not genuinely concerned about animal welfare and said the company is looking to protect its bottom line.

"Slaughterhouses are the least safe places on Earth to work, and that was true even before the COVID-19 pandemic," Reiman said in emailed remarks. "Tyson could fix its problems entirely by switching its plants to processing the vegan meat that it's already producing."

So far, retailers haven't reported significant shortages, though industry officials are tracking the issue closely.

U.S. retailers reported being 15.8% out of stock of poultry as of April 25, slightly up from 14.7% a week earlier, according to Euromonitor International. But that still marks an improvement from the panic buying of late March, when the out-of-stock share topped 20% in 12 of 14 days from March 17-30.

Department of Agriculture data show at least 767,000 fewer cattle, hogs and sheep were slaughtered for meat processing over the past week compared to the same time period last year, a 25.6% drop.

Food safety experts say they're not concerned about the coronavirus being transmitted via food. But they are concerned about workers catching it from one another.

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A number of meat processing plants have become hotspots of coronavirus outbreaks among workers. More than a dozen plants have closed for some period of time, including factories run by meat giants Tyson, Smithfield Foods and JBS.

More than 150 of America’s largest meat processing plants operate in counties where the rate of coronavirus infection is already among the nation’s highest, according to a report published Wednesday by USA TODAY and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. 

These facilities represent more than 1 in 3 of the nation’s biggest beef, pork and poultry processing plants. Rates of infection around these plants are higher than those of 75% of other U.S. counties, the analysis found. 

Tyson last week closed a beef plant in the state of Washington and a pork plant in Indiana to test workers for the coronavirus. The company also last week announced plans to resume limited output at a pork plant in Iowa that was idled for two weeks.

In his blog post and advertisement, Tyson's chairman defended the company's practices, which have included requiring face coverings and installing worker dividers in some areas.

He said the company is also waiving co-pays and deductibles for doctor visits for COVID-19 testing and is paying bonuses to workers.

Contributing: Kyle Bagenstose, Sky Chadde and Matt Wynn

Follow USA TODAY reporter Nathan Bomey on Twitter @NathanBomey.