It has been a couple of weeks since John Tyson took out an ad page in the New York Times to run a letter about the issues COVID was causing in the company’s plants. The piece had four general purposes: regulatory relief, assurance of labor supply, legal positioning and PR.
- Tyson wanted to get released from regulatory constraints. They don’t like this in normal times and wanted flexibility while operating during the crisis. While instituting their own safety plans, they sought help from the White House and Republicans in Washington in in making sure USDA requirements for food safety were relaxed and that OSHA didn’t intervene over worker health and safety. This largely succeeded.
- The second goal was to make sure they had availability to workers. Their concern was that states and local governments were issuing various orders regarding the closing of businesses. This was largely achieved when President Trump signed an executive order that food plant workers would be considered essential workers. Additionally, several Governors of states with Tyson plants have ruled that fear of exposure to the virus is not a sufficient reason to leave a job and apply for unemployment.
- Legally, Tyson is concerned about the illnesses and deaths incurred by their workers. The President’s executive order creates a liability shield for them; the letter in the Times lays out a defense by speaking to the steps the company has taken while ignoring both the relaxed regulations and the outbreaks that have and continue to occur. It remains to be seen how it will play out over the next several years but the company has positioned itself about as well as it could.
- Finally, Tyson wanted to get ahead of the general story regarding illnesses and closures at meat plants. Part of it was to warn about potential shortages and to put the fault on the virus generally. On this it is much more difficult to say if Tyson will succeed. There has been a spotlight put on the meat plants; the conditions are being exposed for the first time for most of the public. The laborers in these plants are paid a fairly low wage for the dangerous and exhausting work that they perform. These workers are often sick, now contracting COVID-19 at rates higher than the general public. Assembly line processing in huge plants creates a fertile environment for food-borne illnesses even when regulations are in place. Americans seem to like to opacity when it comes to how their food is produced and the video of tons of meat being processed by lowers that veil.
COVID-19 may accelerate the lack of trust in large producers of food in general and meat suppliers specifically. The impact on brands like Tyson can be direct. Consumer trends have been towards local and smaller sources and a lot of that has to do with trust. The conditions in the meat plants during the pandemic will not allay concerns. Vegetarianism has grown, particularly among younger people, much of it driven by health and environmental concerns. The unappealing aspects of meat production, now on video display, makes consumers more intimate with the food supply than they are accustomed. Upton Sinclair famously said of his book ‘The Jungle’ that he aimed for America’s heart and hit it in its stomach; it led to the creation of the USDA. The plight of the workers in his book mirrors that of the poor and immigrant communities employed in meat plants today. Whether that impacts on Tyson, other brands and other producers remains to be seen.