John Tyson, chairman of the board at Tyson Foods Inc., spelled out a warning for consumers in a full-page advertisement published Sunday in The New York Times, Washington Post and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Six words among nearly 1,000 others stood out: “The food supply chain is breaking.”
Tyson said the prospect of closing down pork, beef and chicken plants because of the coronavirus has made the U.S. supply chain “vulnerable,” pointing to the potential for meat shortages and a growing concern over food waste.
When meat processing facilities started shutting down because of the coronavirus pandemic, we were initially told not to worry because the facilities that were still operating normally would be able to make up the difference. But now all of that has changed. As you will see below, even the mainstream media is beginning to use the phrase “meat shortages”, and we are being told to brace for supply chain disruptions all over America.
Hopefully any “shortages” will only last for a few months, and hopefully supply chain disruptions will disappear later this year as the pandemic fades. But this is yet another example that shows how exceedingly vulnerable our system has become, and it makes one wonder what will happen once a crisis even worse than this pandemic comes along.
As the number of coronavirus cases continues to climb and stay-at-home orders force consumers inside, demand hasn’t slipped.
But the capacity to produce has.
Meat-packing plants belonging to Smithfield Foods in South Dakota, Missouri and Wisconsin were forced to close this month because of coronavirus outbreaks, McClatchy News reported, and at least five workers at JBM Foods Inc. and Tyson have died after being exposed to the virus.
The bottlenecks those shutdowns have caused are forcing farmers in Delaware and Maryland to humanely slaughter 2 million chickens, according to McClatchy News.
That’s who Handfield said he’s most concerned about — “it could put some farmers out of business,” he said.
A breakdown in the supply chain doesn’t mean the entire meat processing industry is likely to shut down, he clarified — but it will cause a significant strain.
IMPACT ON STORES
Handfield said he’d spoken with workers at grocery stores in North Carolina who told him they often don’t know what’s going to be on the next delivery truck until it arrives.
“Everybody is trying to replenish their stocks as quickly as possible,” he told McClatchy. “They just don’t know how long it’s going to take to get supplies back on the shelves.”
In the meantime, he echoed a message Tyson shared on Sunday: There will be a reduction in products consumers are used to seeing.
Manufacturers are producing what they can, Handfield said, but panic buying and hoarding won’t help.
Products like toilet paper, cleaning supplies and meat will reappear in “spurts and starts” as they become available again, he said. The produce industry could also experience problems if there aren’t enough migrant workers to pick the crops.
“Until we get a vaccine in the next year, we’re going to see starts and stops in the economy and periodic shortages of produce and proteins,” Handfield said. “It’s not going to go away. It’s going to be a slow recovery.”
“It’s going to require everyone to just hang on and try to get through this,” he told McClatchy. “We’re not going to starve to death by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s going to be a rough time for some time to come.”
“Concerns about food supply echo worries about the health of workers.
According to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Unions, a meatpacking and food processing union, at least 10 meatpacking workers and three food processing workers have died from the coronavirus and at least 5,000 meatpacking workers and 1,500 food processing workers have been directly affected.
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Tyson, among others, faced growing criticism for subpar standards in protecting workers, including a lack of adequate gear. The company had faced backlash for slow response to worker safety, including only requiring employees to wear company-supplied masks since mid-April.
Tyson shot back at accusations of an inadequate coronavirus response, committing to “waiving the waiting period to qualify for short-term disability so workers can immediately be paid if they get sick”.
The company also agreed to pay nearly $60m in bonuses to more than 115,000 workers and truck drivers.
Tyson Foods referred the Guardian to its letter in response to request for comment, but in an emailed statement to Time, said it “places team member safety as our top priority”, launching safety measures including temperature checks, requiring masks and ramped-up facility cleaning.
“Despite our aggressive efforts, in some locations, this was not enough and we decided to close several of our facilities,” the statement said.
In a statement to the Guardian, a USDA spokesperson said: “The food supply chain is a critical industry … and Secretary Perdue fully recognizes the need to keep workers and inspectors safe during the Covid-19 national emergency.”
Tyson warned that “farmers across the nation simply will not have anywhere to sell their livestock to be processed”, further sounding the alarm on the threat to the nation’s food supply chain.
The Department of Agriculture (USDA) had vowed to work with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to “ensure the safety of the US food supply and protecting agricultural health”.
The USDA had been criticized for the millions of pounds of food rotting while the country’s food banks became increasingly depleted due to high demand amid the economic dive. Experts have warned it could be a matter of weeks before consumers feel the effect of shutdowns with meat shortages at grocery stores.
USDA waited more than a month to “make its first significant move to buy up surplus fruits and vegetables,” Politico reported. The agriculture secretary, Sonny Perdue, drew fire for the lag in response to the pandemic compared with other federal agencies.
“USDA is committed to maximizing our services and flexibilities to ensure children and others who need food can get it during this coronavirus epidemic,” Perdue said in a statement.
Earlier this month, Donald Trump had said that he expected the secretary “to use all of the funds and authorities at his disposal to make sure that our food supply is stable and safe.”
They could run out of food shortly, as demand intensifies, and donations and volunteers are dropping rapidly.
More American families are today relying entirely on food pantries to bring food on the table.
This is a dire situation families can only take day-by-day.
Food banks where low-income Americans can turn to survive; are now struggling themselves. They’re overwhelmed by people desperate for help.
Foodbank donations have been cut in half at a time when queues are growing rapidly.
In just one week, over 3 million Americans have turned to meal centers, food banks, and kitchens for any help that they can get.
We risk a looming food crisis unless measures are taken fast to protect the most vulnerable, and keep global food supply chains alive, and mitigate the pandemic’s impacts across the food system.
It’s an issue that goes far wider as well. Production and American agriculture are on the brink.
As a result, it means that the food supply is fast becoming a global problem.
In a situation like this, the policies of individual countries can have a global impact.
In the United States, agricultural workers are demanding more as they work to keep the shelves of our supermarkets full.
It’s almost overnight that food workers went from being an afterthought in people’s minds to suddenly being essential work. It should not have taken a pandemic of global proportions for us to realize that food workers literally feed us.
Some fear that this could be too little too late, with the supply chain already in danger of breaking down. The pandemic is hitting farmers hard. Some dairy farmers are being forced to dump their milk instead of selling it;
Other farmers are struggling to harvest their crops, which could affect what you’ll see at the grocery store. Because foreign labor, mostly migrant workers filled more than a quarter-million jobs in the US last year. The harvest season is here, but there are not enough workers—seasonal foreign labor mainly from Mexico.
The crisis has delayed the US government’s processing of their work visas.
Blueberry farms are days away from harvest. They urgently need pickers and packers. Most of their seasonal workers are stuck in Guatemala, where the borders are sealed because of the food crisis. Millions of dollars of blueberries could rot in the fields as the American workers do not want to do this kind of work.
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