Meat industry problem could have immediate and long-lasting adverse effects

Hundreds of thousands of hogs raised by farmers to provide Americans with ham, bacon and other meat products will not make it to the slaughterhouse unless ways are found to cure a nasty side-effect of COVID-19.

It is that a number of meat processing plants have been shut down because of the disease. A few were closed after they became coronavirus hotspots with numerous workers coming down with the disease. At one giant plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, 640 employees reportedly became infected with COVID-19. The facility was shut down — as have been other meat processing plants.

That has resulted in a break in the food supply chain, involving not just hogs but also beef cattle and poultry. With no processing plants to accept their livestock, some farmers already have begun killing them.

Why not just keep them on the farm? Because our ultra-efficient agriculture sector has become something of a victim of just-in-time production schedules. Farmers plan in terms of feed, pasture, veterinarian services, livestock pens and shelters and a variety of other factors to ship stock ready for slaughter out as soon as they are ready. Then, another generation of animals comes in. Some farmers simply cannot handle retaining a large number of animals that were supposed to go to a processing plant.

That inflicts a crushing blow on some farmers, of course. It affects processors’ finances adversely.

And it interrupts the flow of meat products to consumers. Shortages of some meat products already are being felt.

The very scale of the meat industry is an obstacle. The Sioux Falls plant cited above normally ships about 100 million servings of pork products every week. Closure of that one facility took a giant bite out of the nation’s meat supply.

And keeping hundreds of meat processing workers packed into a single plant safe from COVID-19 presents a challenge.

Thus far, no one seems to have come up with a good solution. Clearly, one needs to be found, with federal government financial assistance, if necessary. This is a COVID-19 disaster that, if not beaten, will have both immediate and long-lasting adverse effects.

By Josh Bovee

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