An America without meat: Tyson Foods’ CEO warns “the food supply chain is breaking” — our meats are on the line

An America without meat: Tyson Foods’ CEO warns “the food supply chain is breaking” — our meats are on the line

Is America's food supply chain really at risk?

VicesApril 30, 2020 By Will Brendza

Very few living humans today subsist solely off of food that they’ve grown or which they’ve hunted and gathered. That was the old way of life.

These days, we just drive in our cars to a bountiful “food library” and take our pick of the litter — grocery stores are, for all intents and purposes, the communal food pantry of society. Without them, we would have serious issues.

But, grocery stores are just the last link in our vast and very complex food supply chain. The meat, produce, cheeses, baked goods and other foods you find there, all have storied histories behind them — of where they were produced and processed; how they were packaged and distributed and eventually ended up in your hands.

That food supply chain is one of the most vital arteries of modern civilization. Should any point in that chain be compromised, the shelves of our grocery stores could quickly run empty (and the toilet paper will go first, as we learned last month).

Most of the shortages that stores experienced during the COVID panic-shopping-spree, were consumer caused. Meaning, people selfishly bought up all the pasta and all the canned goods, flour and yeast because they were scared, leaving none for their neighbors and community. Those shortages had nothing to do with our supply chain, and everything to do with hysterical asshats — which didn’t threaten our way of life in any meaningful way.

However, according to John Tyson, the CEO of Tyson foods, the second largest processor and marketer of meat in the world, our food supply chain has been compromised. In an open letter he published in last Sunday’s New York Times, Washington Post and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, he expressed fears over the closure of their meat factories and what it might mean for America at large.

“In small communities around the country where we employ over 100,000 hard-working men and women, we’re being forced to shutter our doors,” Tyson wrote in the letter. “This means one thing – the food supply chain is vulnerable. 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. As a result, 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 continues, saying that in addition to the meat shortages from closed plants, these closures will resort in massive food waste problems as well. Because he argues, that without Tyson’s industrial meat plants (and others like them), large-scale livestock farmers will have nowhere and no-one to sell their livestock to. Those animals would then have to be “depopulated” — disposed of — and a lot of meat would be outright wasted.

“The food supply chain is breaking.” Tyson writes.

That’s an ominous statement, coming from someone at the top of such a powerful meat corporation. If Tyson is right that “the food supply chain is breaking,” it could mean nothing short of apocalypse now, for most Americans. Once people notice meat shelves aren’t being restocked, and realize the problem is on the production end of things, they’ll will start panic-buying again — meat would disappear from the shelves fast.

People would freak out. Even vegetarians and vegans would have reason to worry, as people’s purchasing habits would shift towards fruits, veggies and nuts; putting much heavier consumer strain on the produce side of the supply chain. It would send the whole food system spiraling out of whack and we would be strapped in for the ride. With a population of some 328 million people in America, that could turn very Mad Max, very quickly.

However, when you read John Tyson’s letter, the fact that he’s stirring up Fear isn’t the only thing that jumps out to a keen mind. It also reads a little bit like a strongarm attempt.

See, the Tyson plants that have been closed, haven’t been making any money. They have been sitting idly, empty; and costing Tyson resources to keep them as such. Which, of course, the company doesn’t want to do. Tyson wants to open back up for business, but not just to feed people. They want to feed their corporate income, too. And some of the subtext in that letter almost feels like a veiled threat — “If you force us to keep our plants shuttered, you’re going to starve…”

Tyson’s letter caused a stir. It made people nervous that our food supply might soon be choked. And then what? Do we all start hunting? How long before the looting begins? How long before starvation pushes people to the brink?

Some politicians responded to Tyson’s statements. Responses that were pointed — that seemed to directly contradict the statements John Tyson had made in his letter. Kate Greenberg, the Colorado commissioner of agriculture, released a statement on April 29th, immediately following Tyson’s letter, in which she states, “Colorado’s food supply is strong.”

“The pandemic has caused farmers, ranchers and processors to move food that once went to restaurants and food service to where it’s needed most: grocery stores,” she continues. “The empty shelves we are seeing do not represent a food shortage, but are a result of the challenges of keeping inventory stocking in pace with increased sales. Similarly, the temporary closures or reduced operations at meat processing facilities are to address worker health and safety. We do not anticipate severe beef shortages or significant price increases. Colorado is a top beef cattle producer in the nation and currently has millions of pounds of meat in cold storage facilities.”

Things are going to be okay, according to Greenberg. Just keep calm, and carry on. Even Trump admitted, when asked about America’s food supply: “There’s plenty of supply.”

It’s impossible to know who’s telling more of the truth. Right now, the debate over “opening businesses” or “keeping businesses closed” is so politically charged, it’s hard to believe anything that corporate CEO’s or government officials tell us. Particularly when the narratives contrast so much; and particularly when they concern something as important as our food supply chain.

Maybe Tyson’s letter was an exaggeration, an inflation of the problem, to get their plants open sooner. Maybe Greenberg and other government officials, who are minimizing Tyson’s threats, are doing so just to maintain public order. Both parties have agendas and its extremely difficult to parse out the lies, from the truths, from the halfway truths and halfway lies.

Regardless, if Tyson’s aim was to strongarm the government into opening up their meat processing plants again, it worked. Much to the dismay of the unions, who want to ensure the safety and health of their workers, and much to the frustration of the medical community, who has repeatedly recommended these plants stay closed, on April 28th, just two days after Tyson’s letter hit the press, Donald Trump mandated that meat plants stay open. Tyson got what he wanted.

So, it looks like our meat is safe… at least, for the time being.