‘Food supply is breaking’ | Tyson Foods chairman issues dire warning

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Tyson board chairman says the food supply chain Is 'breaking'

In a full-page ad in The New York Times on Sunday, the chairman of Tyson Foods warned “the food supply chain is breaking” because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Explore»MORE: US food supply chain showing signs of strain as virus spreads

In an open letter, John H. Tyson said “there will be limited supply of our products available in grocery stores until we are able to reopen our facilities that are currently closed.”

Tyson temporarily closed a pork processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa, last week after more than 180 coronavirus infections had been linked to the plant. Hundreds of employees weren't going to work out of fear of getting sick, according to NBC.

Company spokesman Gary Mickelson said the Tyson family thought it was important to explain their perspective.

“The letter encourages government leaders to unite to address food supply chain challenges," Mickelson said. "We are taking a proactive approach to balance safety and production by moving aggressively with testing and plant closures when necessary."

COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, has infected hundreds of workers at meat-processing plants and forced some of the largest to close and others to slow production. While the output at beef and poultry plants has diminished, pork plants in the Midwest have been hit especially hard.

The viral outbreaks have persisted despite efforts by the meat companies to keep workers at home with pay if they become sick.

The 15 largest pork-packing plants account for 60 percent of all pork processed, so when even one of those plants closes for days or weeks, the consequences ripple across the industry. That has become abundantly clear with two of the nation's biggest plants now closed: Tyson suspended operations at its plant in Waterloo, Iowa. And Smithfield Foods halted production at its plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Each plant can butcher nearly 20,000 hogs a day. Some plants have reopened days after cleaning.

The result is that the nation's pork processing capacity had declined by about 25% as of last week, said Steve Meyer, an industry economist with Kerns and Associates in Ames, Iowa.

The global coronavirus official death toll topped 200,000 worldwide Monday, with about 3 million confirmed infections, according to Johns Hopkins University.

»COMPLETE COVERAGE: CORONAVIRUS

The number of dead in the U.S. reached about 55,000 — close to the 58,000 U.S. troops killed during the Vietnam War. Italy, Britain, Spain and France accounted for more than 20,000 deaths each.

Tyson’s Iowa plant closure comes as multiple beef, poultry and pork plants across the country are also being shut down due to coronavirus spreading among workers, many of whom work in tightly packed assembly lines.

In the U.S., Georgia is one of the states allowing restaurants to reopen if they choose and follow strict health and safety guidelines.

The split about when and how to ease the restrictions has often been along partisan lines. Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican, said that with hospitalizations dropping, he will reopen churches and restaurant dining on Friday while keeping social distancing guidelines.

»MORE: Nations, U.S. states charting their own path on reopening

But Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, told ABC her state is not ready and needs more robust testing, community tracing and a plan for isolating the sick.

The White House is also planning to shift President Donald Trump's public focus to burgeoning efforts aimed at reopening the country and easing the economic devastation caused by the pandemic.

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“We’re entering a phase of looking to reopen the country, and with that, the president will be focusing a lot on the economy,” White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany said.

In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been working on sector-specific reopening guidelines that could be released as soon as Monday. Draft guidelines sent by the CDC to Washington include a long list of recommendations for organizations as they begin to reopen after the lifting of coronavirus restrictions, including businesses closing break rooms, schools spacing desks 6 feet apart, and restaurants considering disposable plates and menus.

The draft was obtained by The Associated Press from a federal official who was not authorized to release it.

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The draft includes guidelines for at least seven kinds of organizations, including schools, camps, child care centers, religious facilities, mass transit systems, workplaces, and restaurants and bars.

The shift comes in conjunction with what the White House sees as encouraging signs across the country, with the pace of new infections stabilizing and deaths declining.

Still, medical experts warn the virus will remain until at least a vaccine is developed and that the risk of a severe second wave is high if social distancing is relaxed too quickly or if testing and contact tracing schemes aren’t developed before people return to normal behaviors.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.