Tyson, one of the world’s leading meat processors, suspended operations at its largest pork processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa, on April 22. Earlier, Smithfield Foods, the largest pork producer in the world, announced the closures of plants in Wisconsin, South Dakota, and Missouri. Both companies decided to close facilities after COVID-19 outbreaks among their workers.

Speaking to the closure and the crisis, John Tyson, chairman of Tyson Foods, warned Americans on April 27 that the food supply chain is breaking. As the coronavirus outbreak forces food processing plants to shutter, he predicted that "millions of pounds of meat" will disappear from the national supply chain.

The strain on the system

Consumers have been feeling the effects of disruption on the supply chain, but industry experts say that more pronounced disruption is yet to come.

Panic buying and hoarding; medical equipment and cleaning supply shortages; and empty aisles in grocery stores all point to the consequences of the incredible strain on the global supply chain system.

Understanding the strain

Along with the top names, dozens of smaller pork, beef, and chicken plants are having trouble, too. Long-haul trucking is having a tough time meeting the faster purchasing pace, with additional time needed for sanitizing trucks and supplies and ensuring the drivers' health. As shoppers continue to clear out grocery stores and supply chains are strained, the crisis will likely exacerbate the potential for shortages and high prices.

Food supply chains are a complex web of interactions involving farmers, processing plants, logistics, shipping, wholesalers, retailers, and consumers. A protracted pandemic crisis will put a severe strain on this system and retailers and wholesalers whose inventories might be small already could be wiped out. The system becomes even more complicated for urban and suburban centers in major industrial nations.

Supply and assistance: keeping America fed

Anti-hunger advocacy groups are trying to help meet demand but are inundated with applications. For now, citizens in need of food are going to food pantries and soup kitchens.

With retail and hospitality industries brought to a standstill and educational institutions closed, there have been food shortages and wastage on a large scale. Food banks and food pantries have limited means of storage. Food-strapped food banks are now competing with the general public in retail establishments, adding to their woes.

One challenge is to maintain the food supply at all levels. Then, there is the need to manage the various programs needed to keep Americans fed. While government officials continue to reassure the public that the U.S. has plenty of food, there is a disconnect between official reports of food supply and what the economically challenged are experiencing.

At the ground level, workers, volunteers, and social work organizations are calling for a reevaluation of food systems. They are witnessing empty grocery store shelves, long queues for bags of free groceries, and food pantries completely out of supplies.

Even for families with children usually receiving free- and reduced-price lunch, it is hard to get assistance. The state agencies responsible for these programs still must find the food to buy, and restrictions on what they're allowed to purchase can be burdensome.

The next few months

The discussion around disruption in the food supply chain has grown in the past week due to the closures of meat processing facilities. Along with meat processors, large food warehouses are on the brink as well. As more workers fall sick, staffing shortages are shrinking the food supply.

The lack of foreign-raised meat imports and onerous immigration restrictions impacting the planting and harvesting of many of our nation's crops are going to add to the strain. Plant worker shortages have led to the killing of perfectly edible and healthy animals instead of selling them, a tragic and mindless result.