Factory closings place Americans dangerously close to seeing shortages of meat in grocery stores. Meanwhile, farmers face the likely slaughter of millions of animals and mass graves could soon be dug through the heart.
“The food supply chain is breaking,” said John Tyson, president of Tyson Foods Inc., the largest US meat company.
Epidemics have forced the closure of some of the country’s largest slaughterhouses, where tens of thousands of animals are treated daily. As factories close, producers have nowhere to sell their livestock. This forces farmers to make heartbreaking decisions to eliminate their animals. The situation is so dire that the United States government is establishing a center in part to help with “depopulation and disposal methods.”
“Millions of pounds of meat will go missing” when the factories shut down, Tyson said in a blog post on the company’s website. “In addition to the shortages of meat, this is a serious problem of food waste. Farmers across the country simply will not have a place to sell their cattle for processing when they could have fed the country. Millions of animals – chickens, pigs and cattle – will be depopulated. “
His comments echoed warnings from Smithfield Foods Inc., the world’s largest pork producer, and JBS SA, the world’s largest meat company, that consumers are likely to experience meat deficiencies.
Almost a third of US hog capacity is declining, and JBS announced Sunday that it will close another beef production plant in Wisconsin. Brazil, the world’s largest shipper of chicken and beef, saw its first major closure with the shutdown of a poultry plant, and major operations are also down in Canada, the last being a poultry plant in the British Columbia.
While hundreds of factories in the Americas are still operating, the staggering acceleration in supply disruptions is alarming. Together, the United States, Brazil and Canada account for approximately 65% of world meat trade.
“This is absolutely unprecedented,” said Brett Stuart, president of the Denver-based consultancy, Global AgriTrends. “This is a losing situation where we have producers who risk losing everything and consumers who risk paying higher prices. In one week, restaurants could be in fresh ground beef. “
Meat prices are skyrocketing due to supply disruptions. Wholesale beef in the United States hit a record high and wholesale pork rose nearly 30% last week.
Jersey Mike’s Franchise Systems Inc., which has 1,750 stores in the United States, works with its ham supplier Clemens Food Group to ensure its supply of pork, which they sell quite a bit in their sandwiches.
“We are already supporting it because of the coming shortage – we think -” said Peter Cancro, managing director.
Certain factories have restarted after testing workers and improving conditions, and most of the Brazilian facilities are still operating. Another point to consider: there have not yet been any major stops in Europe. The European Union accounts for about a fifth of world meat exports, according to data from the United States government.
It should be noted that the production of a plant where the infection appears does not pose health problems because, obviously, Covid-19 is not a foodborne illness. Products from a farm or production plant with a confirmed case can still be sent for distribution.
But a production stoppage means that there are no new supplies.
And the closures are happening at a time when the global meat supply was already tight. China, the world’s largest producer of pigs, is fighting an epidemic of African swine fever, which has destroyed millions of pigs in the country. In addition, the virus hits production after some meat companies have already taken steps to slow production due to the closure of restaurants around the world.
Inventories may provide some cushion, but they may not last long.
The total supply of American meat to cold storage facilities is approximately two weeks of production. With most plant closings lasting approximately 14 days for security reasons, this further highlights the potential for deficits.
Meanwhile, factories are also facing a labor crisis while employees fall ill. It has been reported that a large chicken processor was forced to kill 2 million of its birds earlier this month due to worker shortages.
Some North American hog producers also dispose of their animals. An eastern Canadian farmer has slaughtered mature animals ready for slaughter while a Manitoba producer is looking to euthanize 3,000 piglets this week, said Rick Bergmann, President of the Canadian Pork Council. The situation is even more difficult in the United States in the midst of a major wave of closings, and “our hearts go out to our American neighbors who are going through such a deep and dark period,” he said.
“This is a horrible subject,” said Bergmann in an interview with Bloomberg TV. “This is something we just don’t want to do and we just don’t know how to deal with it due to the challenge of the processing plant. “
The United States Department of Agriculture has announced that it will establish a “coordination center” to assist livestock and poultry producers affected by plant closings.
The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service will offer “direct support to producers whose animals cannot move to the market” and will work with state veterinarians and other officials “to help identify potential alternative markets’ as plant closings increase, according to a statement on the agency’s website.
It is difficult to say exactly why the virus spreads so quickly among workers in meat plants. Some analysts have cited the fact that it is generally low-paying jobs that are often held by immigrants and migrants. This means that workers can live in cramped neighborhoods, sometimes with more than one family sharing the same accommodation – so if someone gets sick, the disease can spread quickly.
Employees are also close to work, work on certain processing lines being described as “shoulder to shoulder”. Even if the speed of the lines is slowed, the workers dispersed and the shifts shifted, there is always the possibility of mixing in the break rooms, the corridors and the shared transport to often distant sites. These factories see thousands of people coming in and going out every day – it’s basically the opposite of social distance.
At the same time, American federal employees responsible for inspecting the meat factories fall ill. More than 100 inspection staff have tested positive for Covid-19, the government has confirmed. At least two deaths of inspectors have been reported.
American inspectors travel between facilities. This adds to the fear that closures will continue to occur if a sick federal worker brings infection to factories where there is no epidemic yet.
“During this pandemic, our entire industry is faced with an impossible choice: to continue operating to maintain the food supply or the shutter of our country in order to completely isolate our employees from risks”, a Smithfield said in a statement on Friday. “It’s a terrible choice; it is not a choice we wish for anyone. “