We have something that is quiet ironic happening in America right now. As astonishing as it may be, toilet paper is the least of our worries – this time its the meat section of grocery stores empty – this has become a reality for Americans. The complex and incredibly efficient supply chains that transfer food from our hard working farms onto our plates are breaking, the Food manufactoring industry will most likly never be the same.
If you are like most people you only think about two parts of this critical supply chain that puts food in the tummies of our family, the farm to the plate. Nobody thinks about the another key to puzzle, the now broken meat processing aspect of the food supply. This is the place that chickens turn into nuggets, and steers become steaks, and pigs become bacon.
Due to COVID-19 in April many employees at the meat side of the animal protein supply chain got sick snapping the processing side. Almost overnight, many farmers had nowhere to send their animals to be processed.
Reports across the country of limiting sales per customer on the quanity of meat you may buy. This is something I never thought we would see in America. The situation could last several months, and the problem is not a lack of animals.
Animal protein is a critical component in our diets, and meat animals, along with eggs and dairy, are being produced on farms in abundance right now.
Today’s farms are big businesses by necessity. Modern farming operations are enormous and highly specialized; they are part of a finely tuned production network with just-in-time inventory movement designed to produce enough food for immense numbers of people in densely populated urban centers. If there is a glitch anywhere along this high speed, high volume network, repercussions can be severe, reverberating up and down the entire supply chain. I know this because I am a Proud 2nd generation poultry farmer. Since 1990 my family has been involved with feeding not only America but the world.
The current interruption in the animal protein supply chain has a ripple effect that could result in supply disruptions, and higher retail prices. When an animal processing plant goes down, adult animals ready for immediate slaughter are left stranded, the feeding of animals being fattened for slaughter must be slowed, baby animals needing room to grow are squeezed for space, and the soon-to-be-born young of gestating female animals will have nowhere to go.
In the pork industry they are have humaily terminate ready to market hogs because they can’t get them processed. Keeping them until they can be processed would cost more for the farmer than the lose of putting the hogs to rest. Intentionally aborted pregnancies of tens of thousands of sows, and the reformulation of feed rations for animals in the middle of the supply chain so that they would gain weight more slowly. Similar scenarios and logistical complications are being felt in the beef and poultry sectors as well.
Animal protein is by necessity being wasted or withheld from markets simply because it can’t be processed, and the prices of so called “boxed meats” – the large cuts of animal that are then broken down further into consumer sized retail portions.
U.S. meat production had declined 20% by late April, and predicted that wholesale meat prices would rise. Especially popular items like ground beef were likely to increase in price at the retail level. An investigation by USA Today and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting concluded that by April 21, “coronavirus infections had spread in at least 48 U.S. meatpacking plants, sickening more than 2,200 people and killing 17,” and that “The outbreaks also have prompted the closure of at least 17 facilities.
Smithfield CEO Sullivan said that “it is impossible to keep our grocery stores stocked if our plants are not running,” adding that “These facility closures will also have severe, perhaps disastrous, repercussions for many in the supply chain, first and foremost our nation’s livestock farmers.”
According to the Daily Livestock Report published by Steiner Consulting, slaughter of cattle in the United States declined 19% in the second and third weeks of April, 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. According to a report by Bloomberg News on April 23, “Combined pork, beef and poultry supplies in cold-storage facilities now stand equal to roughly two weeks of total American meat production. With most plant shutdowns lasting about 14 days for safety reasons, that raises the potential for deficits.” In the same report, Dennis Smith of Archer Financial Services, a subsidiary of Archer Daniels Midland, predicted that “Meat shortages will be occurring two weeks from now in the retail outlets,” adding that “There is simply no spot pork available. The big box stores will get their needs met, many others will not.”
On May 4, Tyson Foods informed its investors that U.S. pork production had declined 50%. The same day, Costco announced restrictions on sales of fresh meat, limiting customers to purchasing no more than three items among poultry, beef and pork products. Grocery store chains Kroger and Wegmans imposed similar restrictions on customer meat purchases. Other regional grocery store chains such as Price Chopper Supermarkets and Tops Friendly Markets followed suit in restricting meat purchases. By May 5, Wendy’s had stopped serving beef hamburgers at about 20% of its 5,500 U.S. restaurants. The company only uses fresh but not frozen ground beef, and the shortages were concentrated in states located near where major beef processing plants had closed. Some locations were posting locally printed signs encouraging customers to buy chicken sandwiches instead. The company said “some of our menu items may be temporarily limited at some restaurants.”
Meat and poultry processing facilities are considered critical infrastructure workers, and CDC advises that they may be permitted to continue work following potential exposure to COVID-19, provided they remain asymptomatic and additional precautions are implemented to protect them and the community. However, their work environments may contribute substantially to their potential exposures, as they often work close to one another on processing lines during prolonged work shifts.
For engineering controls, CDC and OSHA recommend configuring communal work environments so that workers are spaced at least six feet apart including along processing lines, using physical barriers such as strip curtains or plexiglass to separate workers from each other, and ensuring adequate ventilation that minimizes air from fans blowing from one worker directly at another worker. For administrative controls, they recommend staggering workers’ arrival, break, and departure times, cohorting workers so they are always assigned to the same shifts with the same coworkers, encouraging single-file movement through the facility, avoiding carpooling to and from work, and considering a program of screening workers before entry into the workplace and setting criteria for return to work of recovered workers and for exclusion of sick workers.
For personal protective equipment, they recommend face shields and considering allowing voluntary use of filtering facepiece respirators such as N95 masks. They also recommend wearing cloth face masks that should be replaced if they become wet, soiled, or otherwise visibly contaminated during the work shift, although cloth face masks are not considered to be personal protective equipment.