Across the country, plants that process everything from pork to chicken to beef have become hotbeds for clusters of COVID-19 breakouts. In response, unions have filed lawsuits about poor working conditions and while Pres. Trump, concerned over the growing impact on the nation’s food supply, has ordered the plants to stay open. Despite these moves, industry leaders acknowledge the U.S. food chain has rarely been so stressed. No one appears 100% certain about the future of the meat supply chain, even as they try to dispel concerns about shortages.

As an indication of the breadth of the problem, on April 26, the meat processing giant Tyson Foods ran a full-page advertisement in the New York Times and The Washington Post outlining the difficulty of producing meat while keeping more than 100,000 workers safe and shutting some plants.

“This means one thing – the food supply chain is vulnerable,” the statement said. “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.”

Despite the uncertainty, meat isn’t going to disappear from supermarkets because of outbreaks of coronavirus among workers at the U.S. slaughterhouses. But, as the meat plants struggle to remain open, consumers could face less selection and slightly higher prices.

Viral Outbreaks

Despite efforts by the meat companies to address the issue, viral outbreaks are persisting at the meat companies. According to the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represents roughly 80% of beef and pork workers and 33% of poultry workers nationwide, as of early May, 20 meatpacking workers have died nationwide, and another 5,000 have been infected by the virus or shown symptoms of COVID-19.

As of May 1, in Kansas, more than 540 COVID-19 cases and two deaths have been tied to meatpacking plants. In just two and a half weeks, positive cases in Ford County, which has two meat-processing facilities, rose from 16 to 702 – surpassing all but one of Kansas’ most populous counties.

Proactive testing of all 2,800 employees at a Triumph Foods pork-processing plant in St. Joseph, MO, uncovered 329 employees who were positive for COVID-19, 90% of whom were asymptomatic. JBS USA beef production plant in Green Bay, WI, closed temporarily after 255 of its 1,200 employees tested positive for COVID-19.

Slow to Respond

Before the viral flare-ups began to spread at plants across the country, plant owners, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and the White House were slow to respond to the few early cases, despite the obviously close working quarters in meat processing plants. The CDC didn’t issue clear guidelines for meatpackers until April 25, clearly, a month after most of the country was under stay-at-home orders.

According to Brandon Vasquez, a worker at the National Beef plant in Dodge City, the plant began temperature checks in early April, and workers finally received masks sometime during the week of April 13. However, maintaining 6 feet of distance between himself and his fellow workers, who often stand shoulder-to-shoulder, is not always possible.

Vasquez says National Beef should have protected workers from the virus sooner.

“So, they’re catching them at the door now, which is good, they’re not letting them inside. But it’s a little too late,” he said. “As soon as they found their first case, they could’ve shut down for two weeks.”

Trump Orders Plants Open

That’s what some plants have done, closed for cleaning, but that doesn’t appear to be an option now that Pres. Trump has ordered the plants to remain open. Using the Defense Production Act, Trump classified meat processors as critical infrastructure as a way to prevent supermarket shelves from running out of meat.

Trump, who consulted with industry leaders before issuing the order, said it would relieve “bottlenecks” created at plants following deaths, quarantined employees and workers who are refusing to work as a protest of existing conditions. The executive order was widely seen as giving processors protection from liability for workers who become sick on the job and it came soon after a lawsuit accused processor Smithfield Foods of not doing enough to protect employees at its plant in Milan, MO. 

A federal judge, in that case, ordered Smithfield to follow federal recommendations. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union said it would appeal to governors for help, asking them to enforce rules that workers are kept 6 feet apart and that employees be provided with N95 masks and access to virus testing.

Improvements Being Made

Companies have already made some changes to reduce risks. In most cases, they’re providing personal protective equipment, and in some cases installing plexiglass shields between workers, reducing congestion by staggering shift start times, and a few other reforms.

The unions said plexiglass barriers should not be used as a substitute for putting workers at a safe distance from one another. They also want to slow down meat processing, including getting rid of waivers that allow plants to operate at faster speeds.

Faced with thinning workforces as workers become infected or stay home in fear, meatpacking companies have also put millions of dollars of pay toward boosting pay and giving workers bonuses to encourage healthy workers to stay on the job.

But Jim Roth, director of the Center for Food Security and Public Health at Iowa State University, said meatpacking plants will likely continue to have problems finding enough workers to operate at full capacity.

“There’s a shortage of workers to begin with, and then with the illnesses and the need to self-quarantine for 14 days after exposure, I’m not clear where the workers come from to keep the plants open,” Roth said.

Short Supply

Despite all the efforts, the daily cattle slaughter for the week of April 13 fell nearly 24% from the same period a year ago. Pig slaughter was down 13% and given the most recent plant closures, those figures will likely fall further.

So far, the meat-processing industry has been able to shift production to open plants to keep a stream of meat moving through the supply chain, said Sarah Little, a spokeswoman for the North American Meat Institute, an industry trade group. Some plants that closed have reopened after deep cleanings.

The situation would be more dire if not for record amounts of meat in cold storage, though much of the meat was intended for restaurants that have been largely closed.

The USDA last week reported 921 million pounds of chicken in storage and 467 million pounds of boneless beef including hamburger, roasts, and steaks. Before much of that meat can be sold at market, it will need to be repackaged because restaurants buy in greater bulk than individuals. Some of the meat would need to be cut by grocery store meat cutters and packaged for customers to take home.

In late March, the USDA eased restrictions to allow for meat that had been intended for commercial food use to be diverted into the grocery store channels for consumers. The industry sought these changes in mid-March after brief meat shortages caused by the coronavirus panic sent people scurrying to grocery stores.

Is The Country’s Meat Supply Safe?

Thankfully, experts say that there’s no reason to be concerned about meat consumption during the coronavirus crisis. According to Jim Roth, DVM, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Food Security and Public Health at Iowa State University in Ames, IA, it’s not possible for cows, pigs, lamb, and poultry to be infected with the coronavirus.

“You don’t need to worry about the meat, dairy, or egg products coming from those animals being contaminated. Livestock and poultry are not susceptible to infection with SARS CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19,” says Roth.

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