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Tyson Foods warns of meat shortages: 'The food supply is breaking'

With meat plants across the country closing due to the coronavirus, Tyson Foods' chairman of the board penned an ominous warning in The New York Times.
/ Source: TODAY

One of the nation's top meat companies has issued a warning that there could be a shortage at grocery stores nationwide due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

In a full page ad that appeared in Sunday's edition of The New York Times, the chairman of the board of Tyson Foods, John H. Tyson, wrote that "the food supply chain is breaking."

The company's ominous message came after it temporarily closed a pork processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa, on April 22. More than 180 coronavirus infections had been linked to the plant, and hundreds of employees weren't going to work out of fear of getting sick, NBC News reported. The plant accounted for almost 4% of U.S. pork processing capacity, according to the National Pork Board.

"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 wrote in the ad.

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On Monday, a worker from the Iowa Tyson plant (whose identity was concealed) spoke with NBC's Kerry Sanders on TODAY about the conditions that led to the shutdown.

"Ambulances start coming to our plant. People start being carried out of there, and so we were always asking our supervisors basically what is it that's going on here," the employee said. "They didn't have enough material, masks and things like that, to provide to us, so they would start giving us different types of rags and stuff that they had ... washed and cleaned."

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Tyson said in a statement to NBC News that it has been "working diligently to protect our team members." It added that early on it allowed workers to bring their own masks and supplied some of its own until it could "secure surgical-style coverings."

The company now requires all employees to wear masks and said it was not "aware of any ambulance visits to the plant for COVID-19-related reasons." NBC News has not been able to independently confirm ambulances being present at the Waterloo plant.

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. Smithfield Farms, one of the nation's largest pork producers, announced on April 12 that it was closing one of its meat processing plants in South Dakota for at least two weeks after at least 300 employees tested positive for the coronavirus.

JBS USA and Cargill Inc. also closed plants after workers tested positive for the coronavirus.

The CEO of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, Colin Woodall, warned that the situation could worsen depending on certain factors.

"If we start to see panic buying much like we did the first two weeks of this pandemic, then yes, we are going to have an issue on our hands," Woodall told Sanders.

Food experts have noted that the shortages customers may be seeing in grocery stores are not about decreased supply nationwide. Many farms, for example, have excess supply because their traditional customers, like restaurants and schools, have closed. However, when large processing plants are forced to slow or halt production, farmers are unable to send animals to slaughter at these facilities, so they must find other vendors who can meet their demands.