US beef output tumbles as meat plants prepare to reopen

At least 20 meat processing workers have died of coronavirus

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Shoppers are encountering limits to how much meat they can buy at the supermarket as the meat industry tries to return to normal after roughly three percent of employees at infected meat and poultry processing plants contracted coronavirus.

Major producers including Smithfield Foods, Tyson Foods and Cargill had to shutter plants in April after workers contracted the virus. Now facilities including a Tyson Foods pork plant in Logansport, Ind., will begin to restart this week.

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But the companies may have to play catch-up because of falling livestock slaughter rates. For example, cattle slaughter fell 37% last week compared to the same period in 2019, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

Equipping workers to prevent the spread of the virus could slow down plant activity, too.

In this April 14, 2020, photo, a package of Smithfield Foods breakfast sausage sits in a shopping cart outside of a local grocery story, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

"Should they have done this five weeks ago? Eight weeks ago? Yes, but the reality is we are where we’re at right now," food supply chain expert Howard Dorman of accounting and consulting firm Mazars USA told FOX Business.

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One hundred fifteen meat and poultry processing plants in 19 states reported coronavirus cases, according to a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. More than 4,900 workers contracted the virus and 20 died.

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TSNTYSON FOODS INC.64.80+1.67+2.65%

"While the [Logansport] facility was idled, we added more workstation barriers, installed more hand sanitizer dispensers, and did additional deep cleaning and sanitation," Tyson senior vice president of pork Todd Neff said in a statement. "We're also now screening employees for additional symptoms and designating monitors to help enforce social distancing, while following the CDC and OSHA's guidance for Meat and Poultry Processing Workers and Employers."

Shoppers may see a decline in "options" from Tyson on the meat aisle, a Tyson spokesperson told FOX Business last week.

The company praised President Trump last week for signing an executive order designed to keep meat processing plants operating under the Defense Production Act.

In this April 9, 2020 file photo employees and family members protest outside a Smithfield Foods processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D. (AP Photo/Stephen Groves File)

"We have ample supply, but there was a bottleneck caused by this whole pandemic, and it was potentially pretty serious," Trump said at the White House on Wednesday. "The big companies you've been reading about … we've solved their problems."

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United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union President Marc Perrone took aim at the executive order in a statement last week. Perron's organization represents more than 250,000 meatpacking and food processing workers.

“Meatpacking and poultry workers have been working tirelessly through this health crisis so that millions of Americans continue to have access to the food they need," Perrone said. "President Trump's executive order now mandates that they continue to do so, without any language that ensures their safety. Let me be clear, the best way to protect America's food supply, to keep these plants open, is to protect America’s meatpacking workers."

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