Coronavirus meat shortage in the United States signals food supply disruption

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If you’re going to Wendy’s this week, chances are you can’t get a hamburger. Go to the supermarket and you will probably see empty shelves in the meat section. You may also be limited to buying one or two packs of whatever is available. Try not to look at the prices. They are almost certainly higher than what you are used to.

This is the new reality: an America where beef, chicken and pork are not as plentiful or affordable as they were even a month ago. The coronavirus pandemic has hit the meat industry hard, as some of the worst virus epidemics in the United States have occurred within the narrow, cold confines of meat processing plants. Standing shoulder to shoulder, the workers there – many of them immigrants, in already dangerous roles and earning minimum wages – face some of the highest infection rates in the country.

Sick workers mean the closure of meat packing plants, and these closings contribute to a deeply disruptive disruption in the meat supply chain. The vast majority of meat processing takes place in a small number of factories controlled by a handful of large companies, namely Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods, JBS USA Holdings Inc. and Cargill Inc. More than a dozen beef These companies’ chicken and pork factories closed in April, and despite an order from President Trump to reopen the factories, managers fear it would endanger lives, so the facilities continue to close. There have been almost 5,000 reported cases of workers with Covid-19 at some 115 meat processing facilities across the country. At least 20 meat packaging workers have died.

And this is exactly what has already happened. As the effects of the pandemic extend through the summer, outbreaks in meat packing plants are creating ripple effects. Slower lines in factories mean less meat is coming to the market, while farmers are euthanizing millions of animals that cannot be processed due to the slowing lines. This is a paradox that could disrupt the US food supply for years to come.

This context should put your missing burger into perspective. The plight of these workers is just the beginning of a chain of crises the coronavirus is creating in the US food supply. The closed meat factories have created a bottleneck in the system through which most of the meat in the U.S. has to flow to get ground beef to Wendy’s, chicken breasts to your local grocery stores, bacon in the nearby restaurant now trying to run out of business, etc.

Things get really tricky on the other side of this bottleneck, where thousands of farmers have planned their animals’ lives on a schedule that ends at these meat packaging facilities. If these plants don’t work, it’s not like they can just keep cows, chickens, or pigs in a nearby field.

“If you hold them, they gain weight and you have to feed them, and it’s expensive,” Mary Hendrickson, rural sociologist at the University of Missouri, told Recode. “And if they gain too much weight, they will be too large to be processed in these highly standardized meat plants, like Smithfield. “

“So you could try to hold them back” and keep the animals waiting in a feedlot, added Hendrickson. “Or you’re going to kill them, euthanize them.” “

Now imagine this on a large scale. According to Jayson Lusk, an agricultural economist at Purdue University, meat processing capacity in the United States has declined by about 40%. In the hog industry alone, that represents 200,000 hogs that will not go to slaughter because the meat packing plants that process them are closed or otherwise unavailable. If nothing else changes, those 200,000 excess pigs a day become a million pigs a week, with nowhere to go except a mass grave.

“I think these numbers are quite staggering,” said Lusk. “But this is the reality of the situation. “

The pig situation is actually more forgiving than what happens to beef. While pigs take around nine months to reach slaughter weight, cows can take up to 24 months. So euthanasia and the burial of a herd of cattle could have ripple effects on the productivity of a farm for years, because euthanized herds mean loss of income and less investment, forcing farmers who were already fighting to compete in an industry with tight margins.

None of this means that America will run out of burgers or chicken fingers or bacon for the foreseeable future. However, this historic disruption in the United States’ meat supply will inevitably have more lasting effects on workers, farmers, and perhaps even the way we look at food itself. Meat companies could turn to automation, laying off workers, while struggling farmers could be forced to band together, transferring more power to large scale farming.

Upton Sinclair is always right about meat packaging

Understanding how we got to a point in the United States where two months of disruption caused the entire system to collapse requires some historical perspective.

If all of this makes you think The jungle, you are on the good road. Upton Sinclair’s muckraking novel disrupted the US meat industry just over a century ago, exposing the inhuman working conditions of immigrants in Chicago’s processing plants. But the public seemed less interested in the human interest aspect of the book, focusing instead on the details of the dangerously unsanitary meat packing plants. A few months later The jungle was published in 1906, the United States government passed the Meat Inspection Act and established the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Sinclair said about the law, “I was targeting the hearts of the public and accidentally hit my stomach.”

What Sinclair said then still rings true. While the FDA responded to public concerns about rising sanitary conditions in factories, workers continued to struggle, doing backbreaking work for low wages. Meanwhile, the entire meat industry was tightly controlled by a handful of powerful companies. This is still true today.

A pig standing in the middle of other pigs looks up.

Despite plant closings and reports of shortages, the United States continues to export pork to China.
Carsten Koall / Getty Images

It was technology that laid the foundation for the hyper-consolidated meat supply to the United States. The innovation of the refrigerated wagon in the late 19th century meant that meat could be shipped to the United States more easily than animals. Chicago meat magnate Gustavus Swift’s company perfected the design of the first “roller coolers” for shipping meat to the United States and around the world. Another Chicago company, Armor and Company, became one of the first to adopt refrigerated cars, and consolidation of the industry followed. At the turn of the century, the so-called “Big Five” packers controlled the vast majority of the meat industry, including the infrastructure that linked farms to processing plants at the dinner table, where Americans suddenly enjoyed more types of meat at a lower cost. prices.

This centralized model of meat production, especially for beef, has not changed much in the past hundred years. The system built by the original Big Five has become a paradigm for the modern industrial agriculture sector in the United States, and some of these companies still have a tight grip on the American food supply. Swift and Company is now part of JBS USA. Armor and Company was purchased by ConAgra, and the Amour brand was later sold to Smithfield Foods. Meatpacking remains consolidated with a few dozen processing plants in the Midwest, many of which are owned by a handful of large companies, such as JBS and Smithfield. This is why, when some of these processors are closed due to a pandemic or some other cause, the country’s meat supply suffers.

“The meat supply system is built on a very efficient and well-managed logistics package,” said historian and author Maureen Ogle. In Meat We Trust. “But the problem right now is that the coronavirus has disrupted at least one critical link in the meat supply chain in a way that has never been disrupted before, and that a disruption is spreading throughout the system , causing bottlenecks and all kinds of other problems. “

You could say Upton Sinclair tried to warn us. Consolidation of the meat packaging industry had started years ago The jungle degrading the world, but as legislation that followed in the early 20th century improved some aspects of how the treatment worked, Americans were already hooked on cheap, readily available meat and seemed unwilling to part with luxury , no matter how despicable the industry. . So the industry hasn’t changed. Many people looked beyond the plight of immigrants working in Chicago’s meat factories, and the big meat companies continued to exploit cheap labor. A hundred years later, workers in the meat packing plants are getting sick and dying right now, but most Americans are more focused on the fact that Wendy has run out of hamburgers.

Supply chain challenges are not the same as shortages

In a full-page ad in the New York Times and other newspapers on April 26, Tyson Foods President John H. Tyson said that “the food supply chain is breaking” and said warned that “millions of animals – chickens, pigs and cattle will be depopulated due to the closure of our processing facilities. Two days later, President Trump issued an executive order declaring the meat plants to be “critical infrastructure” and attempting to keep workers online. Unions have been scandalized, arguing that corporate interests will continue to make a profit on the lives of their members. Public health officials have called for more factories to be closed in the event of an epidemic, but in some cases the government has kept the factories open.

There was no significant shortage of meat at the time. Contrary to what the Tyson announcement said, the closings of meat packing plants have so far only shaken the food supply chain, resulting in higher meat prices and a shortage of certain items in The stores.

Even though dozens of processing plants were closing due to epidemics, the meat giants had at least two weeks of frozen meat in stock, which would keep grocery stores in stock. The US commercial meat supply was in fact particularly large this spring, after the meat industry increased production in anticipation of increased demand in China, where an epidemic of African swine flu had ravaged its pork supply. Despite Trump’s order and public concern over shortages, pork exports to China were still up in early May.

However, availability issues began to arise after home orders changed eating habits across the country. Empty shelves in grocery store shelves led to rationing, and prices for popular items like chicken breasts and ground beef went up. The restaurants closed and the distributors who supply them ended up with surplus meat that was neither packaged nor labeled for sale in grocery stores. Some distributors have in fact opened to the public, selling beef sides and other cuts in bulk to families brave enough to do some butchery at home. Over time, more and more cuts of primary and secondary meat also began to appear in grocery stores.

“It is a direct reflection of two things,” said economist Lusk. “One is the reduced availability of labor in the packaging plant. The second thing is that some of them may be due to the fact that we are removing inventory from the cold store. ”

You should expect to see more in the weeks and months to come. As the supply of retail meats decreases, what appears in your grocery store may look a little different when distributors are struggling to keep up with demand. That, and prices will go up. Beef trimmings, which are used in Wendy’s burgers, cost 25 cents a pound on April 1. In the first week of May, they reached $ 1.93 a pound. So Wendy could get beef, but she’s running out of burgers because the beef is getting too expensive for the fast food market right now.

What is more serious than the shortage

There is another potential future, much more frightening than that in which we suffer from expensive ground beef. It is quite possible that meat packing plants will continue to close due to the epidemics of Covid-19, which will cause years of disruption in the US food supply. Based on the level of panic on the boards of companies like Tyson Foods, that just doesn’t seem to be possible. It seems likely.

In a call to investors on May 4, Tyson said its pork processing capacity was down 50%. An economist told the Washington Post that the figure was actually closer to 75%. With many factories closed and others operating at reduced capacity, Tyson said it expected to “continue to experience slowdowns and temporary idling of production facilities” in the near future due worker shortages and cleanups. “We will not hesitate to idle any plant for deep cleaning when the need arises,” said Tyson general manager Noel White.

A severe-looking chicken stands in a group of other chickens.

In the vertically integrated poultry industry, large companies like Tyson own the chickens and the breeders who raise them work as entrepreneurs.
Dimas Ardian / Getty Images

The situation is not very different for other large meat processors. Smithfield has closed factories in Wisconsin and Missouri, as well as its huge Sioux Falls plant, which is one of the largest in the country. Cargill closed plants in Pennsylvania and Nebraska. JBS USA has closed its beef production facilities in Colorado and a pork plant in Minnesota. The latter recently reopened with a new option “to offer producers an option for human euthanasia”. This is another way of saying that society will help farmers to kill and bury their animals rather than transform them for human consumption. Other factories are reopening with social distancing in place, slowing down the processing chain and only allowing the return of a limited number of workers. Meanwhile, conditions for animals in all of these situations are potentially worse than before, as uncertainty leaves them waiting longer in covered cars and pens rather than living in open spaces.

You would think that closing so many large meat packing plants would mean that small and medium-sized processors could handle some of the backlog. It certainly sounds better than killing millions of cows, pigs and chickens and then burying them in mass graves. But because of the structure of the meat industry, this just isn’t possible.

“The top four beef processors handle more than 80% of the heifer slaughter, and it’s beef that is generally sold in grocery stores,” said Hendrickson, the rural sociologist. “Over 60 percent of poultry and pork are processed by the largest companies. She added that poultry is so vertically integrated that companies like Tyson actually own the chickens themselves, and that everyone involved in delivering this chicken to the store is just an entrepreneur for Tyson.

Small processors do not have the capacity to take care of all these cows, chickens and pigs. The coronavirus pandemic has no expiration date, so we don’t know how long these factories may face epidemics among workers who further delay treatment or close other factories. Even with some form of social distancing in place, it is evident that these facilities, such as retirement homes and prisons, are particularly prone to Covid epidemics.

These facts ultimately translate into worrying concern for farmers, who do not know whether the animals they have been raising for months or years will arrive at the slaughterhouse or be euthanized and thrown into a ditch. Farmers have to do it or they risk losing more money by trying to keep the animals alive long enough to sell them to a meat processing plant. Some farmers may be able to sell the carcasses to a rendering plant, where they could be processed into ingredients for things like pet food and shampoo.

This is also bad news for small and medium-sized meat processors, who are simply not designed to handle the large volumes needed to keep the supply chain intact. This is troubling for grocery stores, because any turmoil in the meat supply chain could eventually change the way people eat. (There’s already evidence that herbal food businesses are booming.) And for consumers like you – well, you don’t know if you can afford to eat burgers or chicken fingers or bacon this summer.

“We Americans want what we want,” said historian Ogle. “We have a deep sense of entitlement when it comes to food.”

There will probably be no shortage of meat anytime soon. You will likely continue to enjoy the meat, although it may not be as cheap or readily available as it was before. Over time, there is evidence that the US food supply will also be more chaotic and unpredictable. Along the way, lower paid workers in meat packing plants are likely to die. More animals will die, perhaps millions more. Some farmers may lose their land.

So it’s not really about burgers. There is a version of America and its eating habits that existed three months ago and that may never exist again. Some may feel entitled to recover this. Others will find something new to be desired.


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