CORONAVIRUS

Tyson closes its largest pork plant after coronavirus outbreak

Even brief idling of Waterloo plant will jar industry

The Tyson Fresh Meats pork processing plant in Waterloo announced Wednesday it would temporarily close and invite employ
The Tyson Fresh Meats pork processing plant in Waterloo announced Wednesday it would temporarily close and invite employees to be tested for COVID-19. (Jeff Reinitz/Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier)

WATERLOO — A decision Wednesday by Tyson Fresh Meats to idle its largest pork processing facility, after days of blistering criticism it was jeopardizing workers at the Waterloo plant, has huge ramifications for Iowa’s multibillion dollar pork industry.

The Waterloo facility joins other meatpacking plants that have been struck by coronavirus outbreaks, raising concerns about maintaining the nation’s meat supply.

Both a National Beef plant in Tama County and another Tyson pork plant in Louisa County resumed operations this week after temporarily closing. Even before the Waterloo closure was announced, it had reduced production because of worker absences.

Tyson spokeswoman Liz Croston said the Waterloo facility would fully shutter when finished processing “already harvested hogs.”

“How quickly we can get through that will determine when we shut down,” Croston said in an email, noting no new hogs had been taken in since the weekend.

She didn’t say if the company had a timeline for reopening the plant.

The company said its 2,800 employees will be invited to come to the plant later for COVID-19 testing. Workers will continue to be compensated while the plant is closed, officials said.

The plant usually slaughters about 20,000 hogs a day, about 4 percent of the nation’s pork processing capacity.

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“It’s really serious — these processing plants are critical infrastructure,” Gov. Kim Reynolds told a radio station Wednesday after Tyson announced the temporary closure. “This is an essential workforce that’s out there on the front line every day to keep nation’s food supply moving.”

Such meatpacking plant closures, even if brief, are likely to send ripples throughout the economy, said Lee Schulz, livestock economist with Iowa State University Extension.

“I think it’s very difficult to even characterize the tremendous impact that this has been to the pork industry,” he said. “This has been a fast-evolving and dramatic impact, as we have seen prices for hog producers have been cut in half compared to last year.”

Iowa produces about a third of the country’s pork — a $7 to $8 billion industry, Schulz said.

“Many industries in Iowa support the pork industry, and the economic activity that is generated by the pork industry impacts industries across the board,” he said.

Livestock farmers, the feed industry, transportation and the financial industry involved with the pork sector will likely feel the effects first.

But with 511 Black Hawk County residents testing positive for coronavirus — a large percentage connected to the meatpacking plant — Sheriff Tony Thompson said it needed to be done.

At least one of the county’s four deaths from the virus was a Tyson worker, though Thompson wouldn’t confirm if there were others.

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“I think, if we had a shutdown when we first asked for a shutdown, we could have saved some lives,” he said Wednesday. “Now, we deal with the here and now.”

Thompson, who along with 19 other elected officials in the county asked for the plant to shutter for a week for cleaning and to allow testing to catch up, acknowledged he understood both sides of the situation.

“We don’t want to see hogs euthanized, but we don’t want to see people die, either,” he said.

Tyson said it was one of the first food companies to start taking worker temperatures, and started efforts to obtain protective face coverings before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations. The Waterloo plant also installed workstation dividers and provide more breakroom space, the company said.

Livestock farmers were already reporting backups — even those that don’t directly supply Tyson, like Blake Hollis of Lanehaven Farms south of Waterloo.

“Any time you have capacity taken offline anywhere, really anywhere in the Midwest, it has an indirect effect because the hog industry is scaled pretty efficiently,” he said. That includes fewer but larger meatpacking plants, and larger hog operations.

Hollis sells his hogs to JBS in Marshalltown, which hasn’t shut down but, he said, has scaled back production by half, forcing him to keep an excess of pigs on his farm — meaning he needs extra space and extra feed.

Hollis has a bit of extra space and the financial cushion to weather the crisis for a few more weeks. But if nothing changes after that, he said he’ll have to start euthanizing his pigs.

But he said farmers aren’t just concerned with their bottom line.

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“We understand the human side of the packing industry — we recognize the value of their lives,” he said. “It’s a very tough situation for the leaders in the industry to figure out how to navigate, because there aren’t any easy answers.”

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