US meat processor Tyson Foods has said the temporary suspension of operations at some of its beef plants will continue until 12 February and may extend beyond that date.

Unfavourable market conditions, including tight cattle supplies, soft domestic beef demand and the continued absence of key export markets, prompted Tyson to temporarily suspend operations on 10 January in Denison, Iowa; Norfolk and West Point, Nebraska; and Boise, Idaho. Second shift processing at Pasco, Washington was also temporarily halted.

Tyson officials said they originally expected the temporary suspension to last three to five weeks; however, based on daily evaluations of current market conditions they have now indicated it will last a full five weeks and possibly longer. The company said it will continue to analyse the situation.

In an effort to retain workers, Tyson has been paying most of the people who are off work. Qualified employees were encouraged to take paid vacation for the first week operations were suspended. The company said it has since been giving them the equivalent of 32 hours of pay each week and will now extend this pay into a fifth week.

"We know how difficult this suspension has been for our team members and our plant communities; however, market conditions have not improved enough to warrant resuming operations," said John Tyson, chairman and CEO of Tyson Foods.

"We need more cattle to run these plants. The US beef industry is currently out of balance with far more slaughter capacity than available cattle. That's why reopening the US border to Canadian cattle is so important. While we remain optimistic this will happen as scheduled, we're concerned about attempts to delay it," he added.

In a related story, US Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns is to face questions at a Senate hearing today [Thursday] on whether a plan to reopen the border to Canadian cattle will expose the US beef industry to further cases of BSE, or mad cow disease. To read more, click here.