The coronavirus pandemic is forcing livestock farms and grocery stores to consider whether the meat industry is primed for a new way of doing business.
Critics of industrial-scale livestock farming say the evidence has rarely been clearer. Pork processing plants have temporarily closed after workers tested positive for COVID-19. Federal meat inspectors have fallen ill by the dozens, disrupting the operations of plants that remain open. Farmers are suddenly forced to feed — or kill — tens of thousands of animals that can't find a way to market.
"This is all being laid bare right now," said Garrett Graddy-Lovelace, an associate professor at American University's School of International Service specializing in global environmental and agriculture policy.
Consolidation into fewer, bigger companies is a long-running trend across food production, Graddy-Lovelace said, but "the meat industry is where it's at its most extreme."
Ever-expanding livestock farms carry an environmental impact, too, as concentrated animal feeding operations with more than 2,500 pigs or 1,000 beef cattle trigger environmental regulations on manure and raise worries about greenhouse gas emissions. Lack of slaughter facilities can make those farms bigger still, for a time.
Labor advocates, too, find faults with the system. They criticize big operations for not doing enough to protect workers from infection.
The system has its advantages. Consumers pay less for poultry and other meat produced on a consistently big scale, and meat is usually in supply and easy to find across the country, farm and meat industry groups say. Companies can process meat more efficiently with established supply chains that include contract farmers who care for animals that are actually owned by Smithfield Foods and similar companies, industry groups say.
Industry groups have told Congress in testimony over the years that they're simply responding to consumer demands and that it's better for a struggling plant to be sold to a big company than to be shut down, putting employees out of work.
Rather than an industry controlled by a few players, big meatpacking companies "are complemented by a large number of mid-size and small niche operators," as in other industries, the North American Meat Institute said on a website, themarketworks.org, devoted to the issue.
"At times, our industry's structure has been criticized by those who prefer a different production model," the NAMI said. "But given our record of providing abundant choices that are safe, affordable and that meet a wide array of consumer preferences careful government oversight we say, 'The market works.'"
'Exposes the weaknesses'
What isn't in dispute is the impact on the supply chain when a crisis strikes.
One Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., that closed accounted for as much as 5% of the nation's pork supply, putting tens of thousands of hogs in limbo. Four out of every five cattle in the United States are slaughtered by five beef processing firms, with companies such as Tyson Foods, JBS USA Holdings, Cargill Meat Solutions, Sysco Corp. and National Beef Packing leading the way.
Smithfield also idled plants in Illinois, and JBS temporarily shut down a pork processing plant in Minnesota and a beef processing plant in Wisconsin.
"The pandemic exposes the weaknesses in this tightly consolidated system and the detrimental impacts on farmers, workers, and rural communities. It is no surprise that slaughterhouses, where workers face grueling conditions in close quarters, are epicenters of the coronavirus pandemic," said the groups Food & Water Action and Friends of the Earth in a news release.
The rise in large slaughterhouses "means the closure of a single plant due to an outbreak in COVID-19 leaves thousands of farmers with no market in which to sell their livestock," the groups said. They wrote last week to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, urging the department to leave big agribusinesses out of a recently enacted coronavirus aid package.
With so many animals stuck on the farm — 160,000 pigs a day beyond what farmers can care for, by some estimates — lawmakers have prodded the Agriculture Department and meatpacking companies to help do what would have been unthinkable weeks ago: killing animals by the thousands daily until the crisis passes.
In the hog industry particularly, farmers can't simply continue to feed animals until markets reopen, House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) told reporters in a conference call today. Among other reasons, he said, once a pig reaches 200 pounds, farmers have a hard time slowing its growth — and any pig heavier than 300 pounds is too big for plants to process.
In the beef industry, farmers seem to be able to feed and care for the extra animals, according to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) echoed that this week in an interview on C-SPAN, saying that while hog farmers have had to euthanize pigs, "we have not had to do that in the cattle industry. I don't believe we will."
The bottleneck in the pork industry reached such a scale that Peterson asked the White House Coronavirus Task Force to devise standards for killing and disposal of on-farm hogs that can't be sent to market. He said today that he helped convince JBS to retool and reopen a plant in Minnesota for the sole purpose of killing and disposing of pigs — a task too grim and messy to perform on the farm, he said.
Operations will begin at JBS tomorrow, Peterson said, with as many as 13,000 hogs euthanized daily. As many as 15% can be rendered at the JBS plant, he said. The rest will be loaded by conveyor belt onto trucks for disposal at landfills or composting facilities or rendering plants.
"The 13,000 is not going to solve the problem. But it helps," Peterson said.
Other companies aren't as ready to sign on; Peterson said Smithfield Foods declined.
In one hint of the impact nationally, USDA said barely 2 million hogs were slaughtered in facilities the week of April 20, down 11% from the prior week and 15% from a year earlier. Prior to the crisis, USDA had predicted hog slaughter would climb.
Graddy-Lovelace, the American University professor, said she wouldn't be surprised to see widespread pork shortages in grocery stores in the next two weeks.
'The next crisis'
As long as consumers are satisfied with the products that system generates, it's likely to remain intact, Graddy-Lovelace said. The business model is established, too, through relatively cheap feed and grain, and consumers' separation from rural America.
"Meat eaters don't know where their meat comes from," she said.
The disruption might open the way to changes in the meat industry, some groups say, if the government helps the smaller producers who direct-market their meat to farmers markets and other local outlets. Direct marketing encourages more sustainable practices on farms because those play into consumers' preferences, said Ben Feldman, executive director of the Farmers Market Coalition in Albany, Calif.
But first, Congress and USDA should extend help to farmers markets in the next pandemic relief measure, he said.
"The customer demand is out there," Feldman said.
Peterson said he worries, too, that the meat and livestock industry won't be prepared for the next pandemic, which might involve disease on the farm, and that he plans to investigate the entire food supply chain through the House Agriculture Committee.
The United States hasn't been hit by African swine fever, for instance, but that illness — for which there's currently no treatment — may be inevitable, Peterson said.
"That'll be the next crisis," he said.