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Tyson Foods Warns of Meat Shortage Following Coronavirus Slaughterhouse Closures

Food
Tyson Foods Warns of Meat Shortage Following Coronavirus Slaughterhouse Closures
An employee restocks the meat section at a grocery store in Miami, Florida on April 13. Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Now might be a good time to go vegetarian.

As meat-processing plants close across the country to stop the new coronavirus from spreading among employees, industry leaders and experts are warning of meat shortages in the nation's grocery stores.


"The food supply chain is breaking," Tyson Foods chairman of the board John Tyson wrote in a full-page ad published in The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Sunday, as well as in a blog on the company's website, as NBC News reported.

Tyson's warning came after the company closed down two pork processing plants in Waterloo, Indiana and Logansport, Indiana in order to test workers for the virus that causes COVID-19, CNN reported. Other major players have also closed plants as thousands of slaughterhouse employees have tested positive for the virus. Three of the nation's largest pork plants, which together process around 15 percent of the nation's pig meat, have shuttered indefinitely: Tyson's Waterloo plant; the Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota; and the JBS pork processing plant in Worthington, Minnesota.

"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," Tyson wrote. "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."

Outside experts also agree that the country could see meat shortages in grocery stores. Archer Financial Services commodity broker and livestock analyst Dennis Smith told NBC News that meat production was down 25 percent.

"We've just completed our third week of reduced slaughter and production," Smith told NBC News. "My guess is that about one week out, perhaps around May 1, shortages will begin developing at retail meat counters."

There is currently enough meat in freezers to keep Americans fed, NBC News reported. The challenge is with moving meat, especially fresh, to grocery stores.

Worker Safety

Slaughterhouses have been forced to close because working conditions make social distancing difficult.

"I work about two feet from my coworkers," an employee at Tyson's Waterloo plant who tested positive for the virus and asked to be identified as Donald told CNN. "I'm about an arm's length away from my partner. It's close."

The Waterloo plant only closed under pressure from the community. It was linked to almost half of Black Hawk County, Iowa's COVID-19 cases as of April 21.

Industry-wide, more than 5,000 meat and food processing workers have been sickened with the virus and 13 have died, according to United Food and Commercial Workers International Union figures reported by NBC News.

In his ad, Tyson said the company was enacting safety measures like installing temperature scanners, requiring face masks, conducting daily deep cleans and installing dividers between workstations.

However, the case of the Waterloo plant calls into question how consistently and effectively these measures are implemented.

Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson said he visited the plant April 11.

"There was no enforcement of PPE, there was no requirement. In fact, some people we saw walking around actually had masks, but they were wearing them around their neck," Thompson told CNN. "I was surprised by the lack of measures, but I was further surprised by what they thought they were doing right."

Food Waste and Animal Rights

The closure of meat processing plants has also impacted farmers and the animals they raise.

"In addition to meat shortages, this is a serious food waste issue," Tyson wrote. "Farmers across the nation simply will not have anywhere to sell their livestock to be processed, when they could have fed the nation. Millions of animals – chickens, pigs and cattle – will be depopulated because of the closure of our processing facilities."

In some places, this is already happening. Iowa farmer Al Van Beek told Reuters he was forced to induce abortions in his pregnant sows because he had nowhere to sell his adult pigs to make room for the 7,500 piglets he was expecting.

"We have nowhere to go with the pigs," Van Beek said. "What are we going to do?"

Animal welfare advocates, however, called out Tyson for only caring about animal lives because they could not profit from them.

"Just as disingenuous as it has been for some meat plants to blame low-paid workers for their living conditions, Tyson Foods, which slits the throats of frightened animals every day that it operates, now has the gall to seem worried about 'depopulating' — aka killing," People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) wrote in a Twitter statement.

The group recommended Tyson solve its pandemic problems by switching to vegan "meat" instead.

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Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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