The meat chain crisis 3

A meat shortage is predicted.

There is no shortage of cattle, sheep, pigs or chickens. But the suspension of normal commerce while the coronavirus pandemic rages has meant that the process by which meat gets from farm to market is not functioning. Meat processing plants have shut down. Suggestions that many small “Mom and Pop”  processing businesses could keep the meat coming to our tables, are unrealistic.

To help us understand how the process normally works and how seriously damaging to the industry the shutdown is, we asked our reader Jeanne Shockley, who is a Maryland farmer, to describe and comment on it.

She has obligingly written this:

The meat business in this nation involves not just the growers and the processing plants, but the grain farmers, and on from them: the agricultural equipment companies and their repair shops; the seed companies, fertilizer and chemical companies; the poultry equipment companies; the carpenters that build poultry houses; the electricians and other sorts of repair people who keep the chicken houses in working order. (Our electric and propane companies depend upon the massive and guaranteed income from the poultry industries, and our forest products are used for litter.) Then there are also: the grain and produce truckers; feed truck drivers; live-haul drivers;  chicken catching crews;  all the business people who handle the companies’s organization and other matters; and the people who keep the plants running – mechanics, feed mill operators, electricians, IT techs, sanitation, waste water techs and veterinarians.

The agriculture businesses linked with meat processing plants have more of an impact upon an area, a community, a state than nearly any other business, and the relationship is very critical for rural areas. The industries make our communities, bring Walmarts and McDonalds and malls and community colleges and housing growth for employees.

An average beef processing plant slaughters and processes 4500 head per week. Now plants have cut back to 1500 per week owing to the shutdown. On the Delmarva Peninsula (Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Eastern Shore of Virginia) the 5 poultry companies combined slaughter and process between 10 and 11 million birds per week. They have cut back to 40 or 50 percent of the weekly kill. Slaughtering and butchering and processing for markets is a major and intensive operation, with continuous costs and upkeep, watched over by full-time inspectors.  

The “Mom & Pop” processing plants that it is hoped can help out if the regulations are relaxed, are what I would call butcher shops.  There is a good-sized one not too far from us in Delaware.  They slaughter five or six steers each weekend for their customers and I would guess as many hogs, and some range chickens, but it is not a processing plant, it is a small family butchering business. As such, they are keeping their own thing going and it is working well. They are now pulling in folks that can’t find meat, milk, or eggs in the grocery stores and are willing to pay extra to get them for immediate consumption or freezing. Why would they use their profits, plus go into debt, in order to expand and pick up a tiny bit of the slack for an indefinite and possibly short period of time? 

The processing plants’ crisis, their struggle to remain open even if they only run 40%, is happening all over the country. It isn’t just about depopulating herds and flocks and wasting eggs, milk and meat.  It is about bringing depression to an area in an already difficult economic time.

The plants are doing what they are capable of doing, which is what the President asked them to do. It is believed that the main reason the Defense Act was implemented is so the companies are protected from lawsuits, should an employee who chooses to work come down with Covid-19.

One idea that we heard was for the companies to rent a hotel and bus transportation in order to house line workers at the hotel. They would not be allowed to return home for the duration of their work period, and would work in shifts. And of course, health care and protocol, etc. would be established. But these are not “expendable” people and none can be conscripted to work the processing lines.

Meat processing plants seem to be a hotspot for outbreaks and maybe this is why; nearly all of the plant workers at the Tyson plant in my area are Haitian and Latinos, with most not speaking English or speaking with very little fluency. They tend to live three families to a single family home or many single people crammed into single family homes. They tend not to be well educated and are of a very congregant culture. Testing and educating about health safety during this time is quite a task in itself, without the language barrier problem. But this is not a job many in this country are willing to do, which is why workers are hired from Latino nations and Haiti.  

The best thing would be to get all processing line workers tested asap, provide safer living arrangements for them and pay them more, although those around here get paid fairly well and enjoy health insurance, on-site clinics, continuing education incentives, English language classes and other benefits. It is a hard and yucky job, but not a bad start for young people or “migrant” workers. The more processing plant workers have testing done, the better for them, for the industry, and for the supply chain to return to normal.

There is encouraging news that the “meat chain” crisis may be averted by measures now planned by President Trump.

Breitbart reports:

United States Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds on Wednesday said at the White House that meatpacking plants would return to full capacity in a week to ten days.

Reynolds and Perdue commented during a visit with President Donald Trump in the Oval office as fears of a meat shortage continue [and] processing plants struggle to keep going amid coronavirus breakouts.

Reynolds thanked President Trump for acting quickly to use the Defense Production Act to declare the plants essential infrastructure. She said that [his] action prevented meat producers from euthanizing their stock that could not be sold. …

Resources would be surged to the plants to help protect the workers and put critical infrastructure in place.