After years of market concentration forcing reliance on a few processing giants, the pandemic-driven closure of some of the nation’s major meat plants has disrupted the food supply chain, with Tyson Foods warning of shortages on grocery shelves.
On April 26, in an open letter run as a full-page advertisement in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the company said that “the food supply chain is breaking.”
“As pork, beef, and chicken plants are being forced to close, even for short periods of time, millions of pounds of meat will disappear from the supply chain,” John Tyson, chairman of the board of Tyson Foods, wrote in the letter, adding that closures of slaughterhouses mean farmers can’t sell their livestock, and that “millions of animals—chickens, pigs, and cattle—will be depopulated because of the closure of our processing facilities.”
“As a result, there will be limited supply of our products available in grocery stores until we are able to reopen our facilities that are currently closed,” Tyson said.
Still, the company said in a separate statement that it was taking action to mitigate the threat of shortages to retail customers.
“We’re shifting production at our plants and rerouting products to make sure store shelves stay stocked for you and your family,” Tyson Foods said in a statement.
Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) said in a tweet: “There’s a step in the process that’s broken. Farmers raise animals and supermarkets sell meat. What’s broken is the butchering (aka processing or slaughtering). Over the years it’s become centralized and concentrated into just a few companies that are closing facilities recently.”
“Food shortages are coming,” Massie said in a separate tweet, calling on the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to act.
Hog farmers have been hit especially hard amid the pandemic as additional giant slaughterhouses that can process more than 20,000 hogs a day have had to close at least temporarily as the virus spreads among workers. The industry typically slaughters between 10 million and 12 million pigs per month.
Meat-processing workers are particularly susceptible to the CCP virus, commonly known as the novel coronavirus, because they typically stand shoulder-to-shoulder on the line and congregate in crowded locker rooms and cafeterias.
“One producer described it to me the other day as a snowball rolling downhill, and every additional disruption that we have just kind of adds to that and how fast and how big it’s going to be when it finally hits,” said Mike Paustian, who farms corn and soybeans and sells 28,000 pigs a year near the small eastern Iowa community of Walcott.
Farmers without extra space are faced with the prospect of killing baby pigs they can’t afford to feed.
“Sadly, it’s true that euthanizing is a question that’s going to come up on farms,” said Howard Roth, a pig farmer from Wauzeka, Wisconsin, and president of the National Pork Producers Council, an industry trade group.
The virus-driven supply-chain disruption has brought about conflicting scenes of empty store shelves, while elsewhere, food is being thrown away or milk poured down drains.
Demand for meat at grocery stores has spiked as more people stay home under advisories or lockdowns, while food-service industry demand, which includes restaurants and airlines, has evaporated amid business closures.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told Fox News on April 15 that dairy farmers dumping milk was due to challenges adapting processes as producers pivot to retail, away from the food-service industry.
“We worked as expeditiously as we could to get milk where it’s needed, obviously in our retail stores, so that’s what’s happening when you see milk being dumped,” Perdue told Fox. “It’s the processors not able to convert their lines into consumer-type packaging.”
Christine McCracken, senior director for animal protein at RaboResearch, told NPR: “I would say that there’s still a lot of meat on the market. … Quite a bit of meat, actually; pork, chicken, and beef.”
While not denying the industry’s problems, some people who raise pigs independently say the pandemic has revealed that the industry is too reliant on a few large international corporations that oversee everything—from raising hogs to processing plants and even marketing and sales.
Chris Petersen, a northern Iowa farmer, raises Berkshire pigs “the old fashioned way”—in individual A-frame houses instead of large confinement buildings. He laments the loss of the independent farmers who marketed pigs to nearby buying stations that delivered the animals to smaller packing plants much closer to the farms.
“It’s a very fragile system because everything has to work just right,” Petersen said.
In a bid to help farmers, the USDA recently announced it would spend $3 billion to buy fresh produce, dairy, and meat that will be sent to food banks.
Also, a USDA spokesperson told Time magazine that the agency, together with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, will work to “ensure the food supply chain remains safe and secure.”
“The food supply chain is a critical industry in the United States, and Secretary Perdue fully recognizes the need to keep workers and inspectors safe during the COVID-19 national emergency,” the spokesperson said.
“USDA recognizes and supports the efforts of private industry and companies to maintain operational status of their facilities while also maintaining the safety and health of their work force.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.