Meat processing plants in the United States are closing due to the pandemic. Will consumers feel the impact?

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Some of the country’s largest slaughterhouses (processing plants or slaughterhouses) have been forced to temporarily shut down after thousands of workers across the country have tested positive for the virus.

Several other small and medium-sized pork slaughterhouses also close for various periods of time to thoroughly clean their facilities and test employees.

When Smithfield Foods announced the closure of its The Sioux Falls plant indefinitely, CEO Ken Sullivan warned that doing so would create a ripple effect that would end up hitting grocery store shelves.

“The closure of this facility, combined with a growing list of other protein factories that have closed in our industry, is dangerously pushing our country to the limit in terms of our meat supply,” he said. “It is impossible to keep our groceries in stock if our factories are not operating. “

There are approximately 2,700 slaughterhouses in the United States, 800 of which are inspected by the federal government. In March, the country saw record production of meat, beef and pork, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The International Union of United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents more than 250,000 workers in meat and food processing, said Thursday that at least 13 processing plants have closed in the past two months, resulting in a 25% reduction in pig slaughter capacity and a 10% reduction. in beef slaughter capacity.

With many Americans staying under house orders, industry experts say demand for meat has increased. At the same time, meat processing is in decline. In the United States, beef processing declined by 27% and that of pork fell by almost 20% compared to the same period last year.

With the closure and reopening of meat processing plants on a weekly, sometimes daily basis, experts warn that production will likely continue on these current volatile roller coasters, as long as the epidemics of Covid-19 continue to rage in the factories.

The country’s food supply is vulnerable

The numbers are startling, but Julie Niederhoff, an associate professor of supply chain management at Syracuse University, says the country’s food supply is not in crisis, but is vulnerable.

“The definition of a supply chain problem is when we have supply and demand that cannot be joined,” said Niederhoff. “We are not going to run out of food. We may be running out of your only favorite food. “

A Tyson Fresh Meats factory in Waterloo, Iowa. On Friday, April 17, 2020, more than a dozen elected officials in Iowa asked Tyson to close the pork processing plant due to the spread of the coronavirus among its workforce of nearly 3,000 people.

She added that people are unlikely to start seeing empty sections of meat at the store, but it is likely that there will be less variety.

“We have so much food in America and we have so many choices that I am not worried that there will not be enough food. There might not be enough of a particular brand or cut, but that the state of our food supply The chain in general is robust. The condition of certain specific items in this supply chain is vulnerable and endangered, “said Niederhoff.

There may be brief shortages of a certain brand or type of meat. For example, instead of Tyson pork sausage, you may need to eat Lost Chicken Thighs for a while.

The sentiment is echoed by the North American Meat Institute (NAMI), an industry trade association that provides advice and regulatory assistance to meat packers and processors, who points out that a few days with fewer options is not the same to a shortage.

Both Niederhoff and the institute recognized that the rigid structure of the food supply chain has created interruptions.

The reduction in meat production in processing plants occurred while consumer demand increased in grocery stores. With restaurants and schools closed due to the virus, the demand for meat packaged for catering and industrial use is declining.

According to the institute, when demand in the food service sector dropped, the industry had to try to redo its processing facilities, trucking everything from food service to retail. It’s something not all facilities are able or willing to do this, which creates an additional disconnect in the food chain.

“There is currently a disturbance in a certain percentage of our meat processing and this will potentially cause a short-term disturbance in the availability of meat, but it will not cause a long-term disturbance because the animals are always there, “said Niederhoff. . “It’s just a matter of figuring out how we can bring this treatment back online or to increased capacity in open facilities in a safe and healthy manner, or find other ways to process this meat and integrate it into the food chain.” supply to consumers. “

Meat processing is like a peak toll booth

Niederhoff said the current situation is like a peak toll booth. The number of vehicles on the road remains the same, but the toll plazas close quickly and without warning, slowing down and reducing traffic. Add to that the complication that only certain vehicles can get to certain stands, and traffic can suddenly worsen for certain vehicles.

And while the country’s frozen food inventory is often cited as a cushion to fill food gaps, monthly figures released by the USDA show a 4% drop in frozen pork stocks from February to March, before the start of the factories closing. This is the largest drop since March 2014, according to USDA records.

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced last week that the department would buy substantial amounts of meat to build frozen storage, help keep food banks in stock and ease the financial burden on American farmers.

“The biggest impact is on the farmers. Farmers will have a longer-term impact in terms of missed income and lower prices on their investments they have already made, “said Niederhoff.

Jim Munroe of the National Pork Producers Council said the current USDA bailouts for pandemic-linked farmers were not enough to save an already struggling industry at the end of the food supply chain.

“It created two crises, a financial crisis and an animal welfare crisis. The financial crisis is due to the fact that there are too many pigs with nowhere to go. Their values ​​had dropped, “said Munroe. “You have a problem of overcrowding on the farms, around each animal with enough access to water and food. And why do you have to make a really tragic decision because you can’t properly take care of all these animals? “

Munroe said the industry is reaching this point, where farmers may have to start euthanizing pigs that have grown too large to fit on processing lines.

NAMI, Munroe and Niederhoff have all stressed the importance for the federal government to allow flexibility in the industry and to provide formal regulations related to Covid-19. They suggested that the federal government intervene to help increase Covid-19 testing of plant workers, noting that plants would likely continue to close due to massive outbreaks, potentially causing irreversible damage.

“This is a desperate situation for the farmer and for the long-term good of the hog production system. We have to help our hog farmers now, otherwise I think there could be long term consequences, a less competitive industry. It’s never good for consumers, “said Munroe. “I think we are looking at a complete restructuring of the industry if we cannot fix it quickly. “

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