US meat production has continued to decline as the coronavirus crisis forces the shutdown of more processing facilities, sparking fears of shortages at grocery stores nationwide.
The US Department of Agriculture’s weekly report found that from 27 April, beef production was down nearly 25% compared to the same time last year. Pork production was down 15%.
While Sonny Perdue, the agriculture secretary, has said the US has “plenty of food for all of [its] citizens”, fewer pigs are being slaughtered at processing plants, down by nearly 50% since mid-March.
Meat processing companies have paused operations as some workers have tested positive for Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Last month, Tyson Foods, one of America’s largest meat producers, warned “the food supply chain is breaking” in a full-page ad in newspapers including the New York Times.
“There will be limited supply of products,” the Arkansas-based company said, until it can reopen closed facilities.
On Thursday, Tyson temporarily suspended operations at its beef processing plant outside Sioux City, Iowa, after more than 900 workers tested positive for the coronavirus.
The company said it would close through the weekend for deep cleaning. The facility is one of the largest beef plants in the country, employing about 4,300 people.
An analysis from USA Today and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting found at least 4,400 workers had tested positive for the virus across 80 plants, causing 28 to close for at least one day.
According to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Unions, at least 20 workers have died.
“I wouldn’t say the food system is breaking, but at least the meat sector is in real serious, critical condition at the moment,” said Jayson Lusk, the head of the Department of Agricultural Economics at Purdue University, told USA Today.
However, there were some signs on Friday that some meat-packing plants could be reopening. A Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in South Dakota where more than 850 workers tested positive will partially reopen on Monday after shuttering for more than two weeks, a union that represents plant workers said late on Friday.
Arkansas-based Tyson Foods said its Logansport, Indiana, pork processing plant where nearly 900 employees tested positive will also resume “limited production” on Monday.
Donald Trump has attempted to curb the looming shortage, signing an executive order on Tuesday declaring meatpacking plants “critical” to keep open.
Legal experts, however, said the order is unlikely to curb the decline, as it doesn’t compel meat producers to remain in production and doesn’t give employers immunity from lawsuits.
Still, Perdue told Bloomberg on Thursday he expected the order to have meat packing plants reopening within “days, not weeks”.
“There will be some less production, some inefficiency based on line speeds, some employees that will not be able to come back to work,” he said. “We want to assure the workers and the community of their safety.”
Fears of meat shortages have had shoppers looking for alternatives to retail grocers. Restaurants and food service vendors have reported shortages as processors shift to selling directly to consumers.
Shoppers are stocking up, but experts warn panic buying will only exacerbate shortages.
“[Americans] have often been confronted by higher prices for beef and pork products, or in some circumstances, nearly empty meat cases,” the Democratic senators Mike Lee and Amy Klobuchar wrote in a letter to the US justice department and Federal Trade Commission.
The senators called on law enforcement to investigate the meat supply chain.