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'The food supply chain is breaking.' Tyson warns as it closes plants because of COVID-19

Tyson Plant .jpg
Posted at 3:38 PM, Apr 27, 2020
and last updated 2021-01-29 23:27:18-05

SHELBYVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Tyson Foods is warning of a possible nationwide meat shortage.

The company, which is one of the country's biggest meat producers, took out full page ads in several weekend newspapers to warn "the food supply chain is breaking."

It comes as the company has closed plants across the nation because workers are sick with the coronavirus.

Tyson closed its chicken plant in Shelbyville over the weekend and on Monday for deep cleaning after a cluster of COVID-19 cases at the plant.

The Metro Health Department is also monitoring more than 120 confirmed coronavirus cases at the Tyson meat processing plant in Goodlettsvillle - which has not been closed for cleaning.

John Tyson, chairman of the Tyson Board, wrote, "In small communities around the country where we employ over 100,000 hardworking men and women, we're being forced to shutter our doors."

He wrote, "As pork, beef and chicken plants are being forced to close, even for short periods of time, millions of pounds of meat will disappear from the supply chain."

Last week the union representing workers at the Shelbyville plant asked Tyson to shut it down for 10 days for a thorough cleaning.

"We've got to get control of this and I don't believe we have control of it," said Randy Hadley with the Retail, Wholesale, Department Store Union (RWDSU) in an interview last week.

Earlier this month workers at the Shelbyville plant spoke to NewsChannel 5 Investigates with their identities hidden because they feared retaliation from the company.

They blasted Tyson for staying open while the number of sick people at the plant rose.

"For a company to say chicken is more valuable than personal health that's a problem," one worker said.

The Tyson letter sought to reassure employees and let them know why the company is so reluctant to close factories.

The letter was titled, "The delicate balance: feeding the nation and keeping our employees healthy."

It warned "farmers across the nation will not have anywhere to sell their livestock" and stated millions of animals will be "depopulated" or killed but not processed.

Tyson stressed it is taking precautions like putting dividers between work stations, making employees wear masks and altering break rooms so people cannot sit too closely together.

It also said the company is giving out "$60 million in thank you bonuses" to front line workers.

But workers we interviewed earlier this month said some bonuses were tied to attendance and simply encouraged sick people to come into work.

"Come to work to get that money. They're coming to work sick just to get it," the worker said earlier this month.

The union said it raised objections, and now all those with excused absences are eligible for bonuses.

Tyson said in the letter "We must come together to keep our nation fed, our country strong and our employees healthy."

The Shelbyville plant is scheduled to reopen tomorrow.

Tyson sent the following statement to NewsChannel 5 with the letter:

"John Tyson wrote the letter because he cares deeply about all of the Tyson team members and their families. He also cares about the good work we do at Tyson producing food for America’s families. With all of the confusing news and misinformation in the media, the Tyson family thought it was important to add their voice to the conversation.

They and the company care greatly about keeping our team members safe while continuing to provide food for America’s families. The letter encourages government leaders to unite to address food supply chain challenges that include plant closings, a backlog of livestock and protein shortages. We are taking a proactive approach to balance safety and production by moving aggressively with testing and plant closures when necessary.

We also want people to know we were one of the first food companies to implement measures to protect our team members. Despite our aggressive efforts, in some locations this was not enough and we decided to close several of our facilities. Although each of these closures puts the food supply at risk, this was the right decision to keep our team members safe. Other food processors have also closed some of their facilities, further contributing to the fragility of our food supply system.

At the moment, our other plants remain open and we are working hard to keep store shelves filled, however our facilities are running at reduced levels of production, and any additional shutdowns will further stretch an already strained food supply system—but if it is the right decision to shut down more facilities, we will do so.

We do not take these measures lightly, as plant closures have far-reaching impacts, including leaving farmers to take drastic measures such as depopulating animals that are unable to be processed for food. We are working with other industry groups in effort to keep our team members safe while continuing operations.

While certain parts of the economy have “closed” and the food supply chain is breaking, parts remain open, and rightfully so. We support a thoughtful reopening that prioritizes public health above all else, which means safety from COVID-19 and the availability of food."


Shelbyville Tyson plant to close for cleaning after COVID-19 outbreak

Union demands Tyson temporarily close Shelbyville plant after spike in COVID-19 cases


See all our coronavirus coverage here


What is COVID-19 (a.k.a. the new coronavirus?)

According to the World Health Organization, coronaviruses (CoV) are a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases. Examples include the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV)and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV). A novel coronavirus (nCoV) is a new strain that has not been previously identified in humans. COVID-19 stands for "Coronavirus disease 2019," which is when this strain of the coronavirus was discovered.

What are the symptoms?

The CDC says patients confirmed to have the 2019-nCoV reportedly had mild to severe respiratory illness with:

  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing

Or at least two of the following symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Repeated shaking with chills
  • Muscle pain
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • New loss of taste or smell

At this time, the CDC believes symptoms could appear as soon as two days after exposure, or as long as 14 days.


The CDC is recommending "common sense" measures such as:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a cloth face cover when around others.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.