A man shops for meat during the pandemic.

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Tyson Foods is accelerating development of robotic technology that will assist with meat processing following a series of coronavirus outbreaks at meatpacking facilities around the US. 

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been a total of 16,233 coronavirus cases in meat processing facilities across 23 states. 

Tyson has already invested $500 million in robotics since 2017, but CEO Noel White told the Wall Street Journal the company plans to ramp up these efforts in response to the pandemic. 

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In the not-so-distant future, robots may be cutting and processing packaged meat for Americans.  

Tyson Foods is reportedly accelerating development of robotic technology designed to handle processes like deboning the 39 million chickens that go through the company’s plants each week, according to a report from the Wall Street Journal.

While the project has been in the works for several years, the meatpacking company increased urgency around the effort in the wake of a rash of coronavirus outbreaks across its facilities starting in May. Tyson, as well as competitors like Smithfield Foods, quickly became hot spots for spreading the virus, sickening workers and prompting temporary closures that led to national meat shortages. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been a total of 16,233 coronavirus cases in meat processing facilities across 23 states in the US. As of July 10, these illnesses have contributed to 86 deaths, the CDC findings show.

“Meat and poultry processing facilities face distinctive challenges in the control of infectious diseases, including COVID-19,” the CDC report states. “COVID-19 outbreaks among meat and poultry processing facility workers can rapidly affect large numbers of persons.” 

Tyson Foods CEO Noel White told the Wall Street Journal that the company has already invested $500 million in robotics since 2017, and has plans to ramp up the project amid the coronavirus. Tyson currently has a dedicated facility on its Springdale, Arkansas headquarters where engineers and scientists are testing and developing meat processing robots. 

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Tyson is not the only meat behemoth turning its sites to robotics. Competitors like JBC and Pilgrim’s Pride have also working on developing similar automated robotic technology in recent years. “They are much closer to what the person can do than seven years ago,” JBS CEO Andre Nogueira told the Wall Street Journal. 

While automated robots could reduce exposure to the coronavirus and help prevent employees from working in close proximity, some have concerns that they could take the place of human jobs in an economy that has left 21 million Americans unemployed. Further, many of these workers are already earning comparatively low wages to other individuals in similarly hazardous lines of work, at an average of $15.92 an hour. Construction workers, for example, earn an average of $28.51  an hour, according to the US Labor Department. 

 

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