Tyson expects to keep slowing meat production as coronavirus sickens workers and tanks income

The meat producer warned of continued "slowdowns and temporary idling" of plants during the coronavirus pandemic.

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By David K. Li

Major meat provider Tyson Foods reported a steep decline in income Monday, raising more fears about America's food supply chain during the world's fight against the coronavirus.

Net income fell by 15 percent for the second quarter, ending March 28, compared to the same period the previous fiscal year, Tyson reported.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced the company to close several plants and slow production as hundreds of workers test positive for the virus.

"We have and expect to continue to face slowdowns and temporary idling of production facilities from team member shortages or choices we make to ensure operational safety," Tyson said in a statement.

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The company has had to shut down plants in Dakota City, Nebraska, and Pasco, Washington, as well as pork plants in Waterloo and Perry, Iowa.

It started a limited reopening Monday of a pork plant in Logansport, Indiana, where nearly 900 employees tested positive.

"There have been some shortages in some specific categories," CEO Noel White told analysts on a conference call.

Beef shortages have even reached drive-thru windows at some Wendy's, where burgers were pulled off the menu.

The chain, best known for a 1984 commercial asking "Where's the beef?" said any shortages will be temporary.

"As you’ve likely heard, beef suppliers across North America are currently facing production challenges," according to a Wendy's statement. "Because of this, some of our menu items may be in short supply from time to time at some restaurants in this current environment."

The country's capacity to slaughter hogs has dropped by about 50 percent from pre-pandemic levels, according to Tyson President Dean Banks.

A focus of the nation's struggling pork industry has been Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where more than 800 employees tested positive at a Smithfield Foods plant.

Some workers filed back Monday, but not before going through a tent where their temperatures were taken and they were screened for symptoms of COVID-19, the disease associated with the coronavirus.

About an hour east of the Smithfield operation, a JBS USA pork plant in Worthington, Minnesota, also planned a partial reopening on Wednesday.

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Joe Biden, the apparent Democratic presidential nominee, said Monday that he feared for those meatpacking workers.

He called meat production plants — where employees had been working long hours, often shoulder to shoulder — and nursing homes "the most dangerous places there are right now."

"They designate them as essential workers and then treat them as disposable," Biden said of the meatpackers.

Last week, President Donald Trump said meatpacking plants are "critical infrastructure" and vowed to use federal action to maintain the nation's food supply.

Some stores to start imposing limits on meat purchases

In preparation for a potential shortage, the major food retailers Kroger and Costco have already announced that some stores will limit the amount of meat customers can buy.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report Friday revealing that more than 4,900 workers at meat and poultry processing facilities have been diagnosed with the virus.

At least 20 have died, and the CDC said not all states have provided data, so the grim numbers are probably much higher.

Reuters and Associated Press contributed.