As meatpacking plants across the country have temporarily closed due to COVID-19 outbreaks, consumers might be seeing less meat on the shelves at the grocery, but farmers are dealing with animals they can't sell.
Meatpacking plants slaughter livestock and send packaged meat into wholesale and retail channels. Companies spent the better part of the 20th century mechanizing every possible aspect of the process, to maximize efficiency.
“The problem here is that the weakest link for the packer is the fact that they still have to rely on human labor,” says historian Maureen Ogle, author of In Meat We Trust.
The jobs require little education or skill at the outset but can include significant training. It’s physically demanding work and employees often stand shoulder to shoulder.
“You can’t social distance in a packing plant,” she says.
And that makes them especially vulnerable right now.
On April 12, after pressure from local and state officials, Smithfield Foods announced it was temporarily closing its slaughterhouse in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which has more than 3,000 employees. Tyson Foods has just reopened a plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa, that closed for two weeks. Both have had many employees become sick with COVID-19. At least one USDA inspector at the Columbus Junction plant also became sick.
The Tyson plant in Waterloo, Iowa, remains open despite numerous cases and even though local public health and elected officials have clashed with the governor, company and pork industry over when a closure is warranted. JBS, National Beef and other companies have reported sick workers in Iowa, Nebraska and other states.
“The closure of this facility, combined with a growing list of other protein plants that have shuttered across our industry, is pushing our country perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply,” Smithfield CEO Kenneth Sullivan said in a statement. “It is impossible to keep our grocery stores stocked if our plants are not running.”
The companies insist that worker safety is their top priority, but some have stayed open even after hundreds of cases of COVID-19 because they are deemed essential. Even as they shut down, the immediate problem is not whether there is enough meat to go around. For weeks, restaurants and other institutions have not needed the meat they would normally buy.
“When you really think about the fact that about half of our calories are consumed outside the home, that’s been a dramatic shift in our consumption patterns,” Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said, “and the misalignment of production and supply has created some real challenges here.”
To help move food into the hands of hungry people, Perdue recently announced USDA will buy $3 billion worth of fresh produce, meat and dairy products to distribute to food banks and other groups that help those in need.
It’s also worth noting that the country has hundreds of millions of pounds of meat in cold storage. In general, that’s intended for export markets, which are down due to the pandemic, or for specials like you’d see in a weekly ad. The supermarket wants to know it has access to plenty of whatever cut it’s offering. Cold storage can also help with supply hiccups.
Derrell Peel, a livestock economist at Oklahoma State University, says we’re not running out of meat. And people can adapt.
“We could use less meat, and you know it might or might not be a case of not having absolutely any, it might be having less,” he says. “It might be having something a little different.”
People who have lost their jobs or some of their income may buy less, or even no, meat. Fancy cuts like beef tenderloin may become more affordable and available at supermarkets.
But at the farm end of the supply chain, pork producers face barns full of market-weight hogs that would have been entering those processing plants. Part of the efficiency of the system is that sows give birth and wean litters at predictable times and those newly weaned piglets move into barns recently cleaned after being vacated by the market weight hogs. A farmer can feed pigs a few days or even a week longer than planned. But much more than that and there’s a backlog all the way back to the nurseries.
“When you look at the sophisticated, precise process from the birth of a pig to its slaughter five months later, and then into the consumer’s mouth, it’s something that’s gotta go pretty smoothly,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said in a conference call with agriculture reporters. He noted that the volume of hogs processed during full capacity is vast. Even a short shutdown could leave hundreds of thousands of animals stuck in limbo. “You get into the issue of euthanizing pigs and what do you do with a 300-pound pig after they’ve been euthanized?”
One small-scale producer in Iowa is managing as best he can with local sales. Nick Torkelson, of Humboldt, has a barn full of market-ready Berkshire hogs. He says the specialty pork variety normally goes to restaurants, but since that demand has disappeared, he’s selling one at a time right in his own community. People call him looking for pork, he delivers a hog to the local meat locker for butchering, and then he tells the customer when to pick it up.
“They pay for the processing and then you just gotta go up to the locker and get it,” Torkelson says. “About 10 days to two weeks after it’s been delivered up there, and then you’ll have your meat.”
It’s not a long-term solution, but Torkelson says it keeps the money in town, feeds a local family and helps him reduce his losses. He’s not getting the premium price he anticipated.
Economists point out that when the market is functioning normally, prices adjust according to supply from farms and demand from consumers. This current holdup, smack in the middle of the process at the slaughterhouse, is something new.
“There’s never been a case to my knowledge,” Ogle says, “where the breakdown in the meat supply has come because the labor force itself is in danger, or they’re not coming in because they don’t want to die from a virus, or they’re getting sick on the job and then other people are getting sick.”
And that’s why an ample supply isn’t turning into robust meat cases and low prices at the store. At least for now plant closures are happening in succession rather than simultaneously, so open plants are taking on extra animals. Closed plants are planning for gradual re-openings as quickly as possible.
Plus, state governments and businesses are responding in various ways. The pork industry has publicly requested that processors stay open.
“We’re also seeing a real heterogeneous impact because the situation is not impacting states at the same rates,” says Lee Schulz, a livestock economist at Iowa State University.
Hog producers had been growing their headcounts in anticipation of an expanded market this year, especially as trade tensions ease with China and that country continues to fight a swine disease. Now, even if plants remain open, any profits farmers were hoping for may already be lost.
“You are seeing much lower prices being paid to producers,” Shulz says.
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