America’s Meat Supply Chain Is Feeling the Pressure of the COVID-19 Outbreak

Meat supplies are fine for now, but problems are popping up across the country.

Keeping America’s food supply chain running is one of the most essential jobs out there. No offense to your hunting skills, but the vast majority of Americans aren’t equipped to keep meat on their table for any longer than their freezer is deep. And yet, labeling meat processing jobs as “essential” doesn’t guarantee these facilities will be able to run without issue. Quite the opposite, actually, as the COVID-19 pandemic is taking its toll on America’s meat supply chain.

From the temporary shutdown of a Cargill beef and pork processing plant in Pennsylvania to nearly 100 employees testing positive for COVID-19 at a Tyson chicken facility in Tennessee, the coronavirus has slowed or entirely halted meat production at locations across the country from essentially every major producer. Over the weekend, the New York Times had pegged the number of facilities where production was halted or been greatly reduced at over a dozen. The way the industry operates makes them susceptible to these kinds of outbreaks with workers stuck in tight quarters on often fast-moving production lines. “We are really, really close. Sometimes when I’m using a knife to cut the meat, I just feel somebody else’s hand pushing me or touching me,” an anonymous Tyson employee in Iowa told Iowa Public Radio.

Looking at beef specifically, The Washington Post reports that national production is down by as much as 25 percent—due in part to the closure of two of America’s largest processing facilities. Potentially compounding the issue is that a relative few companies control so much of the supply. Cargill, Tyson, JBS USA and National Beef control over 80 percent of U.S. beef, according to Politico, and though these companies say they’ve been doing what they can to protect their employees, support farmers, and keep Americans fed, the government has also been looking into allegations of price-fixing as soaring demand from the public and lower supply due to closures and social distancing measures have oddly coincided with a 25 percent drop in the price of live cattle.

ground beef
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But choosing how to address all of these problems isn’t cut and dry, in no small part because food is essential. For instance, yesterday, Iowa governor Kim Reynolds said she would not call for the closure of a Tyson hog processing plant, despite admitting to a “suspected outbreak,” with local health officials reportedly saying they have 151 confirmed cased tied to the facility. But as Reynolds stated in a press conference, one-third of all U.S. pork comes from her state, and at least two other meat processing plants also have confirmed outbreaks: Continuing to shut plants will eventually hurt supply. “We should all be working on finding solutions to making sure that we are doing infectious control policies that we're making sure that the workforce is protected, and most importantly, that we're keeping that food supply chain moving,” the governor was quoted as saying.

So for consumers, the big question because are we headed towards a meat shortage? The answers, unfortunately, are extremely mixed. Panic buying caused grocery shelves to empty, but that surge was temporary—unless worries of a shortage cause another spike. Also, the sharp decrease in restaurant orders theoretically should open up supply for retail, but shoppers apparently don’t want to fork out additional cash for the kind of high-end cuts that usually go to chefs. “All of a sudden 23 percent of the animal isn’t being bought because food service is gone,” John Bormann, program sales manager for JBS, told The Washington Post.

However, though supplies appear fine for now, one thing does seem certain: The system could eventually break if we continue in this direction—especially if the impact hits large facilities forged out of consolidation. “When you get to this kind of size, it increases risk,” Ben Lilliston from the farm advocacy group Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy told the New York Times. “When something goes wrong in a really big plant like this, you have a really big problem. These are vulnerable systems.”

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