DES MOINES — Meat isn’t going to disappear from supermarkets because of outbreaks of the coronavirus among workers at US slaughterhouses. But as the meat plants struggle to remain open, consumers could face less selection and slightly higher prices.
Industry leaders acknowledge that the US food chain has rarely been so stressed and that no one is sure about the future, even as they try to dispel concerns about shortages.
On Sunday, the meat processing giant Tyson Foods ran a full-page advertisement in The New York Times and other newspapers outlining the difficulty of producing meat while keeping more than 100,000 workers safe and shutting some plants.
“This means one thing — the food supply chain is vulnerable,” the statement said. “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.”
“The letter encourages government leaders to unite to address food supply chain challenges,’’ company spokesman Gary Mickelson said. ‘‘We are taking a proactive approach to balance safety and production by moving aggressively with testing and plant closures when necessary.’’
Pork plants in the Midwest have been hit especially hard. The viral outbreaks have persisted despite efforts by the meat companies to keep workers at home with pay if they become sick.
The 15 largest pork-packing plants account for 60 percent of all pork processed, so when even one of those plants closes for days or weeks, the consequences ripple across the industry. Tyson suspended operations at its plant in Waterloo, Iowa. And Smithfield Foods halted production at its plant in Sioux Falls, S.D. Each plant can butcher nearly 20,000 hogs a day. Some plants have reopened days after cleaning.
The result is that the nation’s pork processing capacity had declined by about 25 percent as of last week, said Steve Meyer, an industry economist with Kerns and Associates in Ames, Iowa.
A beef production plant in Green Bay, Wis., is the latest to shut down because of infections among employees. JBS USA said the JBS Packerland plant, which employs 1,200, would be closed temporarily. As of Monday, 255 employees at the plant tested positive for COVID-19, said Claire Paprocki, a spokeswoman for the county health department.
Nationally, although the reduced supply is expected to raise consumer prices, expectations are that the increases will be slight. The US Department of Agriculture said late last week that it expects beef prices to climb 1 percent to 2 percent this year, poultry as much as 1.5 percent, and pork between by from 2 percent and 3 percent.
The agency acknowledged that consumer buying patterns change weekly and that some products face supply-chain disruptions that could affect prices. But the USDA said its planned $3 billion purchase of fresh produce, dairy, and meat should help stabilize prices. The government will work with food distributors to provide the purchased products to food banks, community and faith-based organizations, and other nonprofits serving the needy.