There have been nearly 5,000 reported cases of workers with Covid-19 at 115 meat processing plants nationwide.
If you go to Wendy’s this week, there’s a good chance you won’t be able to get a hamburger. Go to the supermarket and you’ll probably see some empty shelves in the meat section. You may also be restricted to buying one or two packs of whatever’s available. Try not to look at the prices. They’re almost definitely higher than what you’re used to.
This is the new reality: an America where beef, chicken, and pork are not quite as abundant or affordable as they were even a month ago. The coronavirus pandemic has hit the meatpacking industry hard, as some of the worst virus outbreaks in the United States have occurred in the tight, chilly confines of meat processing plants. Standing elbow-to-elbow, workers there — many of them immigrants, in already dangerous roles and making minimum wage — are facing some of the highest infection rates in the nation.
Sick workers mean meatpacking plants are shutting down, and these closures are contributing to a deeply disruptive breakdown in the meat supply chain. The vast majority of meat processing takes place in a small number of plants controlled by a handful of large corporations, namely Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods, JBS USA Holdings Inc., and Cargill Inc. More than a dozen of these companies’ beef, chicken, and pork plants closed in April, and despite an order by President Trump to reopen the plants, managers fear that doing so will put lives at risk so facilities continue to close. There have been nearly 5,000 reported cases of workers with Covid-19 at some 115 meat processing facilities nationwide. At least 20 meatpacking workers have died.
And that’s just what’s already happened. As the pandemic’s effects stretch into the summer, outbreaks in meatpacking plants are creating ripple effects. Slower lines in the plants mean less meat makes it to market, while farmers are slaughtering millions of animals that can’t get processed due to the slowdown of the lines. It’s a paradox that could disrupt America’s food supply for years to come.
This context should put your missing hamburger into perspective. The plight of these workers is just the starting point in a chain of crises the coronavirus is creating in America’s food supply. The shuttered meatpacking plants have created a bottleneck in the system through which most meat in the United States must flow in order to get ground beef to Wendy’s, chicken breasts to your local grocery stores, bacon to the nearby diner now trying to run a takeout business, and so on.
Things get really tricky on the other side of that bottleneck, where thousands of farmers have planned the lives of their animals around a schedule that terminates at those meatpacking facilities. If those plants aren’t operating, it’s not like they can just keep the cows, chickens, or pigs in a nearby field.
“If you hold them, they gain weight and you have to feed them, and that’s expensive,” Mary Hendrickson, a rural sociologist at the University of Missouri, told Recode. “And if they gain too much weight, then they’re going to be too big to be processed in these very standardized meat plants, like Smithfield.”
“So you might try to hold them up” and keep the animals waiting in a feedlot, Hendrickson added. “Or you’re going to kill them, euthanize them.”
Now imagine this at scale. According to Jayson Lusk, an agricultural economist at Purdue University, the meat processing capacity in the United States is down by about 40 percent. In the pork industry alone, that amounts to 200,000 pigs that won’t get sent to slaughter, because the meatpacking plants that would process them are closed or otherwise unavailable. If nothing else changes, those 200,000 excess pigs a day become a million pigs a week with nowhere to go but a mass grave.
“I think that those numbers are pretty staggering,” Lusk said. “But that’s the reality of the situation.”
The pork situation is actually more forgiving than what’s happening to beef. While hogs take about nine months to get to slaughter weight, cows can take up to 24 months. So slaughtering and burying a herd of cattle could send ripple effects through a farm’s productivity for years, since slaughtered herds mean lost revenue and less investment, squeezing farmers who were already fighting to compete in an industry with tight margins.
None of this means that America will run out of hamburgers or chicken fingers or bacon in the foreseeable future. However, this historic disruption in America’s meat supply is bound to have more lasting effects on workers, farmers, and perhaps even the way we think about food itself. Meatpacking companies could turn to automation, putting workers out of jobs, while struggling farmers might be forced to consolidate, further shifting power to big agriculture.
Upton Sinclair continues to be right about meatpacking
Understanding how we got to a point in the United States where two months of disruption caused the whole system to break down requires some historical perspective.
If all this has you thinking about The Jungle, you’re on the right track. Upton Sinclair’s muckraking novel turned the American meat industry upside down just over a century ago, exposing inhuman working conditions for immigrants in processing plants in Chicago. But the public seemed less interested in the human interest aspect of the book, instead fixating on details of the dangerously unsanitary meatpacking plants. A few months after The Jungle was published in 1906, the US government passed the Meat Inspection Act and established the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Sinclair famously said of the legislation, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”
What Sinclair said then still rings true. While the FDA did address public concern over more sanitary conditions in the plants, the workers continued to struggle, doing back-breaking labor for low wages. Meanwhile, the whole meat industry was tightly controlled by a handful of powerful corporations. This is all still true today.