Is ‘The Food Supply Chain Breaking?’ Facing The Risks Of Industrial Meat Processing

May 1, 2020

A customer reaches for a packaged pork at Westborn Market in Berkley, Mich., Wednesday, April 29, 2020. President Donald Trump has ordered meat processing plants to stay open amid concerns over growing coronavirus COVID-19 cases and the impact on the nation's food supply.
Credit AP Photo/Paul Sancya

The nation’s meat supply was declared ‘critical infrastructure’ by the White House Tuesday. The order detailed that ‘the closure of a single large beef processing facility can result in the loss of over 10 million individual servings of beef in a single day.’ 

The executive order came two days after the chairman of Tyson Foods responded to closures of major meat processing hubs with a full-page New York Times ad warning that “The food supply chain is breaking.” With outbreaks of COVID-19 spreading rapidly to processing facilities, worker absenteeism threatens this important bottleneck between grocery stores and farmers.
 

If these animals are not processed, then we would face the possibility of having to euthanize those animals. - Duplin County Manager Davis Brinson

Duplin County poultry processor House of Raeford has been directly marketing its chicken after the pandemic hurt sales to regular customers like restaurants and institution. If processing plants slow or stop buying and selling their product, the industrial timing is botched and poultry farmers lose their already slim profit margin.
Credit Courtesy of House of Raeford

The hazards facing our nation’s food supplies are related to the history of corporate consolidation and reliance on centralized industrial facilities. With hundreds of employees on the refrigerated slaughter floor at once, meat processors are working closely with local and state health departments to screen and maintain the safety of personnel. But are the measures enough to protect the surrounding communities where workers live? As the supply chain teeters, processors in North Carolina continue churning out chicken and pork, some of which is sent to parking lots and fairgrounds across the state for massive factory-price sales.    

Host Frank Stasio discusses the precariousness of meat production as well as the labor and public health questions around the processing facilities with Leah Douglas, a reporter for the Food and Environment Reporting Network. Also joining the conversation are North Carolina Emergency Management Director Michael Sprayberry and Poultry Extension Agent Margaret Ross.

Highlights from our conversation with reporter Leah Douglas (LD) as well as quotes from local officials and advocates:

How many meat processors have shut down nationally due to COVID-19?
LD: Today [Friday, May 1] we have nearly 100 meat packing and processed food facilities that have outbreaks of COVID-19. And at least 20 meatpacking plants are closed temporarily or indefinitely as of today. And that situation is bringing a lot of our meat processing capacity offline across the country, which is really creating an issue for meat companies and very dangerous working conditions for the workers at those plants. And of course, those conditions are a part of the reason that they're closed — workers are getting sick.

We're very concerned about revenue stability here in county government, and we're concerned about our unemployment rate. The largest segment of our economy is agriculture and, [in] Duplin County, we're the number one agricultural county in the state, with millions and millions of animals here in the county. If these animals are not processed, then we would face the possibility of having to euthanize those animals.
  - Duplin County Manager Davis Brinson
 

There used to be a much more distributed network of independent farmers and independent processors across the country.

How does industrialization and consolidation affect the resiliency of the meat supply?
LD: In our economy today, we have just four companies that control 85% of our beef processing, and three that control 63% of hog processing. That equates to just a handful of plants across the country where that processing is happening.

Bringing even one or two of those plants offline, or running them at reduced capacity, can have a huge impact on how much meat is actually moving through the supply chain.

… There used to be a much more distributed network of independent farmers and independent processors across the country. Over the past three decades, a series of mergers and acquisitions — assisted by some federal policies, [like] lack of antitrust enforcement — has resulted in an extremely consolidated sector, which is highly vulnerable to these types of disruptions.

We really rely on the information that Tyson is telling us. Right now, we feel like the measures that they've taken and the virtual tours that we've done with them — we've been able to see and feel comfortable with those measures.
  - Wilkes County Health Director Rachel Willard

How are safety standards enforced at meat processing plants?
LD: Some plants have made the decision themselves to take production offline and deep-clean the facility even before there's one reported case. We've seen that in a few different places, whereas other plants continue to stay open and have not complied with social distancing guidelines, even after our tens, dozens or hundreds of cases. … The Department of Labor issued a guidance saying they may take on cases of meat companies against employees’ suits if the companies have made a good faith attempt to comply with CDC social distancing guidelines and employee safety guidelines.

Well, what is a ‘good faith attempt’ has not been defined clearly. So there's still a lot of question marks around what authority is going to be activated at the federal, state or local level to try to bring these plants into compliance.

We've heard from workers that are afraid to go back to work. They don't want to go back to work because they don't want to go back to disease and expose their families to it. There [are also] concerns from several workers that temp workers might be going to work even when they were sick because they don't want to lose their job and don't know exactly what they will be entitled to.
  - Ilana Dubester, executive director of El Vinculo Hispano