You can read the ad for yourself here, or get The Washington Post's summary and analysis of the ad (as it appeared in their own pages) here. The gist of it is: an argument by Tyson board chairman John Tyson that the company is absolutely taking worker safety seriously, an argument only slightly undermined by decades of reported abuses of workers; and an argument that the company takes its public "responsibility to feed our country" seriously, an argument only ever-so-slightly dinged by constant industrywide demands for fewer and weaker inspection protocols. Most of the advertisement is devoted to listing what the company has done to reduce worker infections in their plants. The workers who have died at those plants are not, of course, mentioned.
But the biggest issue is, of course, that "in small communities around the country where we employ over 100,000 hard-working men and women, we're being forced to shutter our doors. This means one thing—the food supply chain is vulnerable."
This means that "there will be limited supply of our products available in grocery stores until we are able to reopen." So the "government bodies at the national, state, county and city levels must unite in a comprehensive, thoughtful and productive way to allow our team members to work in safety without fear." That may or may not be a reference to industry bailout requests.
A central rule of consumerism is that all advertisements should be read cynically. It is true that the shuttering of plants will result in higher prices and lower availability of pork, chicken, and other slaughterhouse products. It is not true that this by itself would result in food "shortages" in general. The company's claim that farmers will be forced to slaughter and discard animals that would have gone to the shuttered plants is, perhaps surprisingly to some, mostly true; farmers cannot afford to feed vast numbers of now-unwanted animals, and already-pregnant animals are not going to put things on pause due to the subsequent lack of space. The disruptions to the supply chain caused by the simple need for Americans to prepare food at home instead of relying on restaurants or other large-scale kitchens are very real, and causing chaos throughout the "essential" markets. It is a mess.
But there is an undercurrent to the Smithfield and Tyson warnings that sounds more than a little like threats, and the industry has a history of such threats: Force us to improve animal conditions, America, and you will face higher meat prices. Force us to abide by stricter food inspection protocols when we would prefer to do those inspections ourselves, if at all: higher prices. Worker safety measures? Only if you're willing to see poor Americans deprived of their needed protein due to raised prices.
After the Smithfield plant became a national COVID-19 hotspot and after multiple Tyson plant workers died of the virus, the always-dangerous industry was once again put in the national spotlight. We've moved past arguments about regulations into discussions about which facilities are simply too dangerous to workers, due to infection rates, to remain open. The discussion now hinges on determining an acceptable worker death rate per pound of meat processed, much as individual state governments are now weighing how many deaths are tolerable in order to reopen restaurants, beaches, and public facilities.
It's not an easy question. But it is also not merely an opportunity for a bit of disaster capitalism, in which affected companies with a long history of worker abuses demand both preferential treatment and preferential relaxation of existing rules in order to meet the challenges of a moment they studiously avoided preparing for.
If the companies cannot safely reopen their plants—safely being the key word there—there are now plans being formulated to help bail out pork farmers forced to cull their herds due to the closures. Once again, the same rural Republicans who balk at "bailing out" urban COVID-19 hotspots do not appear to be similarly objecting here. Go figure. But industrial-scale plants with a history of worker abuse—hmmm. If we are expected to bail them out as well, we ought to get some ironclad regulatory promises about how they will prevent future worker deaths since they have proved so miserably unprepared to prevent the current deaths.