How the Pandemic is Impacting US Meat Production

Largest Union Advocates for Personal Protective Equipment

Food producers are adjusting to massive shifts in demand as a result of the coronavirus. As restaurants and food service providers no longer need large quantities of food, home cooks are trying to figure out how to feed their families stuck inside every day. Meanwhile, the workers who produce America’s food are struggling to stay safe.

On Thursday, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union said no fewer than 5,000 meat packers and food processing employees had either contracted or been exposed to the coronavirus. That number comes from the union’s 250,000 members in the meat and food processing industry. Union members make up 80% of the workers behind America’s pork and beef, and 40% of poultry industry workers.

Since workers at meat processing plants tend to work on a line close to one another, social distancing has posed a significant challenge to the industry. While some plants appear to have built dividers to keep infections from spreading, the union is hoping to get masks and other protective equipment to meat packing plants.

Tyson Foods Works to Fulfill Needs

The companies behind America’s meat are finding themselves in a bit of a bind, forced to balance the essential need for food with the need for safety. “We’re working hard to protect our team members during this ever-changing situation, while also ensuring we continue fulfilling our critical role of helping feed people,” said Liz Croston, a spokeswoman for Tyson Foods Inc. (TSN), in a statement last week.

For Tyson and the larger meat processing business, managing that balance has proven to be a challenge. Last week, Tyson was forced to close two important pork plants and a beef plant in Pasco, Washington. The impact of that one plant’s closing was felt immediately. Tyson says the Pasco plant could process 2,300 cattle, enough to feed 4 million people, every day.

“Unfortunately, the closure will mean reduced food supplies and presents problems to farmers who have no place to take their livestock. It’s a complicated situation across the supply chain,” said Steve Stouffer, Head of Tyson Fresh Meats, in a statement.

Despite fears of meat shortages in May, Tyson’s CFO, Stewart Glendinning, offered some encouraging words at the end of last week. Appearing on Yahoo Finance’s “The First Trade,” Glendinning said, “Our employees come first, and then of course we are very focused on making sure there is food in the supermarkets.” The major takeaway for consumers was, “Don’t panic.”

Americans Look for Healthy Food in Uncertain Times

To fill the potential void in the supply chain, restaurants and grocery stores are changing their practices. Some bakeries have started selling ingredients like butter, flour, and yeast instead of ready-made croissants and bagels. Restaurant chains like Subway and Panera Bread (PNRA) are doing the same with their produce. Grocery stores are adjusting their operations as well. Physical stores that used to be full of people are now functioning more like warehouses as in-store shopping has dwindled and consumers order groceries online.

The CDC recommends that however they shop, Americans should plan ahead and stock up on nutritious foods as much as they can. As financial uncertainty grows, nutritionists suggest looking for nutrient-dense food with long shelf lives. That could mean filling up a cart with eggs, beans and lentils, whole grains, and nuts.

Even in normal times, the American Psychological Association says 38% of Americans report stress eating each month. To avoid increasing stress, some psychologists recommend following the Mediterranean diet , which has shown to improve mental health. “The idea behind nutritional psychiatry is to feed the gut microbiome, eat nutrient dense plants and seafood, and avoid processed foods, simple carbs, and simple sugars,” Columbia University Psychiatry Professor, Drew Ramsey said. The good news is that these foods will likely remain available in grocery stores and on delivery apps.

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