Industry Experts Say Meat 'Supply Chain Is Good' Following Warning From Tyson Foods That It Is 'Breaking'

As meat processing plants around the country close in response to the coronavirus pandemic, concern among American consumers about the availability of meat continues to grow. That concern was fueled on Sunday by an advertisement published by Tyson Foods—which has closed several plants in recent weeks as workers tested positive for COVID-19—in which Chairman John Tyson said that "the food supply chain is breaking."

But industry experts have said that initial issues with the supply chain will not be permanent and said any impacts those issues may have on consumers will not be devastating.

"Overall, there's no doubt that you're probably going to see some shortages," Executive Director of the American Association of Meat Processors Chris Young told Newsweek. "People may get to the grocery store and they may not have the exact cut of protein they want. But overall, there's going to be enough meat for the consumer."

Grocery store meat shelves
The employees at Presidente Supermarket in Miami, like the rest of America's grocery store workers, are on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, helping to keep the nation's residents fed. Despite growing concerns as meat processing plants across the country announce temporary closures, industry experts say consumers will not lose the ability to purchase meat products. Joe Raedle/Getty

Concern spiked in mid-April as a Smithfield Foods facility in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, closed after hundreds of employees tested positive for COVID-19. Plants have continued to close since, with Tyson Foods announcing closures of several plants—including its largest pork facility in the country—last week.

Earlier this month, a spokesperson for the North American Meat Institute told Newsweek there was plenty of meat in cold storage to feed consumers despite reductions in production levels that have resulted from temporary plant closures. Young echoed this statement, adding that sudden increases in meat purchases also contributed to shortages at grocery stores when the pandemic first began to spread in the U.S.

"We were caught off guard a bit by the panic buying at the beginning," Young said. "I think the supply chain has caught up."

On Sunday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidelines for meat processing workers with examples of ways to practice social distancing at plants where employees typically work in close quarters. Some of the new guidelines—including wearing facial coverings, staggering break times and implementing dividers between work spaces—were already in use at plants that shut down.

"Part of the challenge has been the CDC guidelines changed," Young said, pointing specifically to recommendations regarding facial coverings. "Most of the meat industry plants started right away with implementing the CDC's guidelines."

Regardless of the shifts in messaging and alarms raised by companies closing facilities, industry experts say American consumers will not lose their ability to purchase meat. On its website, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said that while there might be brief shortages at local markets while supplies are redirected from restaurants, schools and other places where they're no longer needed, "there are currently no widespread disruptions reported in the supply chain."

Due to the close proximity in which meat processing plant workers operate and the fact that some virus carriers are asymptomatic, Young said it was inevitable that plants would encounter the virus at some point. Even so, he said daily sanitation practices in place before the pandemic began have kept meat products safe for consumers, and efforts to implement safety precautions for employees was an evolving process.

"There's no doubt there are going to be some shortages, and there may be some price increasing going on," Young said of the impact on consumers. "But overall, people will still be able to find enough meat and poultry to take care of their families."