United Church of Christ

COVID-19 and the U.S. Meat Supply Chain

United Church of Christ – Wider Church Ministries
Humanitarian Development Team
Coronavirus (COVID-19) Daily Briefing
Barbara T. Baylor, MPH – Temporary Health Liaison

COVID-19 and the U.S. Meat Supply Chain

Having a great beef burger, steak, stew, frankfurter or sausage is something many Americans look forward to. What will happen now that COVID-19 is challenging beef suppliers across the country?

The dark side of what happening in meat packing plants is compelling. Large meat packers have been battling major outbreaks of COVID-19 at plants across the country. Multiple meat-packing plant shutdowns have raised concerns about meat shortages in grocery stores and prompted President Donald Trump to weigh in with an executive order last week that seeks to keep them open.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported on Friday that more than 4,900 workers at meat and poultry processing facilities had been diagnosed with the virus. At least 20 had died. Not all states have provided data, so the grim numbers are probably much higher.

What’s more, reports the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, hundreds of federal meat inspectors have been exposed to COVID-19. About 145 field employees were absent from work as of April 28 with COVID-19 diagnoses, and three have died. Scores more were under self-quarantine due to exposure to the virus. Among concerns for inspectors is that plants DO NOT have to notify them if someone in a plant tests positive for COVID-19.

Here’s what’s happening at several points in the meat supply chain:

  1. Tyson, the second largest processor of chicken, beef, and pork in the United States, reportedly has been hit by major outbreaks of COVID-19 in several of it packing plants. This past Tuesday, Tyson resumed limited operations at its Walla Walla County (Wash.) site, which employs more than 1,400 people.
     
  2. The country's capacity to slaughter hogs has dropped by about 50 percent from pre-pandemic levels. A focus of the nation's struggling pork industry has been in Sioux Falls, S.D., where more than 800 employees tested positive at a Smithfield Foods plant.
     
  3. About an hour east of the Smithfield operation, a JBS USA pork plant in Worthington, Minn., also planned a partial reopening on Wednesday.
     
  4. In preparation for a potential shortage, the major food retailers Kroger and Costco have already announced that some stores will limit the amount of meat customers can buy.
     
  5. According to the CDC, Pennsylvania has the largest number of meat processing facilities and workers affected by COVID-19. Pennsylvania has reported that 22 meat processing facilities have been affected by COVID-19 and 858 workers have been sickened.

It’s very possible that the number of COVID-19 cases in meat packing facilities is higher than what has been reported. Meat packing facilities voluntarily report the number of cases and deaths, leaving gaps in data collection.
 
Some meat companies have expressed reluctance to test workers, saying that such targeted testing creates the false impression that meat plants are the main culprits for the spread of the virus. The more aggressively employees are tested, the more cases emerge, putting pressure on plants to shut down.
 
“Everybody wants to test meatpacking employees, but nobody is testing the communities around them to show what’s the baseline,” said Steve Stouffer, the president of the fresh meats division at Tyson Foods. “And until we know the baselines, my question has always been are we the cause or are we just the victim of our surroundings?”

The reduced meat output from processing plants comes as consumer demand increases at grocery stores. With restaurants and schools closed because of the virus, the demand for meat that is packaged for food service and industrial use is down. At the same time, as Americans remain under stay-at-home orders, industry experts say the demand for meat has increased.

The United States is far from running out of animal protein. In both commercial and public storage, the United States has stockpiled 925 million pounds of frozen chicken, 491 million pounds of frozen beef and nearly 662 million pounds of frozen pork, according to the USDA.

Julie Niederhoff, an associate professor of supply chain management at Syracuse University, says the country's food supply is not in a crisis, but it is vulnerable. "We're not going to run out of food. We're going to run out of maybe your one particular favorite food,” she said.

Meat-processing plant closures are threatening more than just the supply of meat on the market. Experts say they are also threatening the farmers who could soon have more cows, pigs or other animals on their hands than they can afford to feed or house.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue reportedly plans to develop a program that will include direct payments to farmers and ranchers hurt by COVID-19 and other procurement methods to help solidify the supply chain from producers to consumers. The program has not yet been finalized.

Read more: The New York TimesThe Food Chain’s Weakest Link: Slaughterhouses

 

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