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Where’s the beef?

4 May 2020 By Richard Beales

The traditional – if maybe socially distanced – barbecues of America’s Memorial Day are mere weeks away. Yet the U.S. supply of pork, chicken and beef is at risk. Amidst the coronavirus pandemic Tyson Foods, for one, is having to pay belated attention to the cheap labor it has long relied upon. It’s not the industry’s only long-term concern.

With assistance from an executive order from President Donald Trump, Tyson and others are reopening plants that were closed due to Covid-19 infections – in one case in Indiana, nearly 900 of some 2,200 workers tested positive, according to local media reports. The $20 billion company is providing more screening, testing and benefits for employees.

On average across the United States meat industry workers are paid roughly $29,000 a year, or around $14 an hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That only modestly clears the Department of Health and Human Services’ poverty guideline for a household of four.

The extra costs involved in keeping workers safe are arguably overdue for Tyson and peers like Smithfield Foods and JBS USA. The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union last week urged state governors to ensure health guidelines are enforced as the companies try to keep their operations open.

The goal is to maintain processing capacity, limit shortages in grocery stores, and avoid further stress on the producers of the animals, some of which otherwise will be euthanized – or depopulated, in the word chosen by John Tyson, the company’s chairman, in an advertisement in newspapers last week.

The most senior representative of the family that controls Tyson also said “the food supply chain is breaking.” If so, corporate players in the highly concentrated U.S. industry are partly to blame.

Tyson’s executives talked up automation initiatives on a call with analysts on Monday. The company and its peers could be headed towards somewhat fewer but higher-paid workers – probably a more sustainable mix.

But it’s not the only necessary shift. Factory production and processing of animals brings greenhouse-gas emissions and the risk of excessive water use and pollution, among other worries. Sustainability nonprofit Ceres marks Tyson and other meat companies poorly on water risks, for example, and investors already took the company to task on pollution. Maybe once the coronavirus wanes in significance, environmental beefs – and potential solutions – will return to the fore.

 

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