COVID-19 forces Tyson to shutter two major U.S. pork plants

UPDATED — Reuters — Tyson Foods is shuttering two pork processing plants, including its largest in the United States, to contain the spread of the coronavirus, further tightening meat supplies after other major slaughterhouse shutdowns.

The closures are limiting the amount of meat the U.S. can produce during the outbreak and adding stress on farmers who are losing markets for their pigs.

Lockdowns that aim to stop the spread of the coronavirus have also prevented farmers around the globe from delivering food products to consumers. Millions of laborers cannot get to fields for harvesting and planting, and there are too few truckers to keep goods moving.

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Tyson Foods, the largest U.S. meat supplier, said it will indefinitely suspend operations at its largest pork plant at Waterloo, Iowa, after operating at reduced capacity.

Plant employees tested positive for the virus, and others stayed home out of fear of becoming infected. The facility slaughters about 19,500 hogs a day, or about five per cent of total U.S. pork production, according to industry data.

Tyson also plans to close a pork processing facility at Logansport, Indiana, while its more than 2,200 workers undergo testing for COVID-19.

“Consumers will see an impact at the grocery store as production slows,” Tyson Fresh Meats Group president Steve Stouffer said.

“It means the loss of a vital market outlet for farmers and further contributes to the disruption of the nation’s pork supply.”

When the Logansport facility closes, slaughterhouses that account for 19 per cent of pork production in the United States will be shut.

Brazilian-owned JBS and WH Group’s Smithfield Foods have also each indefinitely closed massive pork plants in Minnesota and South Dakota, respectively.

Reduced meat output comes as demand has increased at grocery stores, while restaurant dining rooms are closed due to the virus.

Tyson said 2,800 workers at the Iowa plant would be compensated during the closure and invited to the facility later this week for coronavirus testing. The outcome of the tests and other factors will determine when the facility will reopen, according to the company.

Other U.S. meat and poultry plants are operating at reduced capacity. Tyson is running a pork plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa, with limited operations after idling it for two weeks.

Iowa farmer Randy Francis delivers 300-500 pigs a week to the Waterloo plant for slaughter that are backing up in his barns. He hopes to truck the animals to other plants, but they are already overloaded with other hogs displaced by the shutdowns.

The pigs will put on more weight than normal due to the delays, Francis said. That could make their meat fattier or tougher to chew when they are eventually slaughtered, he said.

“It’s definitely scary times,” Francis said.

— Reporting for Reuters by Tom Polansek in Chicago and Praveen Paramasivam and Uday Sampath in Bangalore.

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