Across the country, meatpacking plants are shutting down over coronavirus outbreaks among staff. Since the start of April, huge meat firms like Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods, JBS USA Holdings, and Cargill have closed at least a dozen pork, beef, and chicken processing plants, per the Wall Street Journal. At least 3,400 people in meatpacking facilities have tested positive, and at least 17 have died, the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting estimates.
And because of the intense concentration of the meatpacking industry, these facilities account for a massive share of America’s overall meatpacking capacity. As much as 40 percent of America’s pork-packing capacity is currently idle, by one estimate.
This won’t necessarily lead to meat shortages, as Nicole Narea explains (though it might cause spot shortages at your local grocery store). But it has severe consequences for the animals left on farms across the country.
Pork and poultry production (and to a lesser extent beef production) is done on a “just-in-time” basis, explains Jayson Lusk, an agricultural economist at Purdue. Farms typically operate on the assumption that they’ll be able to send off mature hogs to slaughter so that hogs still being grown have room to live; there isn’t much excess capacity if the mature hogs have to stick around due to meatpacking bottlenecks.
“If the finished pigs, who weigh about 280 lbs, are unable to head to the packing plant, there is no room in the barn to receive the new batch of pigs from the nursery,” Lusk explains in a recent blog post. “If the nursery isn’t vacated, there is no room for the piglets. All the while, new piglets are being born with nowhere to go.”
That means that the number of “excess hogs” on pig farms is growing rapidly. “We have a national pork processing capacity of about 500,000 head per day,” Lusk writes. “Latest data suggests that because of plant closures and slowdowns, we are processing about 40% fewer pigs, which means an extra 500,000*0.4 = 200,000 pigs that are left on the farm. Every. Single. Day. Do that for 5 days, and that’s 1 million ‘excess’ pigs left on the farm.“ This holds at both small and large farms; these problems are faced by producers at all levels.
So farms across the country are facing a massive dilemma: What do we do when there are millions of additional animals we don’t have space, labor, or food to care for? There are several options available, but they boil down to three big strategies:
- Packing more animals into existing barns, which risks overcrowding in facilities that already don’t offer a lot of room per animal
- Putting animals onto outdoor fields, where they cannot be protected effectively from predators and disease
- Euthanizing animals en masse
“You’re having to choose between amazingly bad options for protecting their welfare, or making the incredibly difficult choice to euthanize them all because there are fates worse than death,” says Candace Croney, a professor of animal sciences at Purdue and an expert on animal welfare on farms.
Some farms are already taking the extreme step of euthanasia (a term some might argue is a misnomer since their killing isn’t strictly for the animals’ benefit in this case). Allen Harim, a poultry processor, has announced it will euthanize 2 million chickens in Delaware and Maryland. JBS’s pork plant in Worthington, Minnesota, has reopened — to euthanize pigs from local hog farms, not to process them for sale. A representative for the Minnesota Pork Producers Association told the Star-Tribune he expects 60,000 to 80,000 hogs will be put down this week in Minnesota alone.
This kind of effort isn’t unprecedented. In 2015, an avian influenza outbreak led to the US Department of Agriculture assisting in the euthanizing of 31.5 million birds in Iowa. But the animal welfare costs of the Covid-19 outbreak are relatively underpublicized, and severe. The costs on human farmers forced to euthanize animals are severe as well. “It takes a significant emotional and psychological toll on the people who have to do it,” Croney says. “They’ll try to avoid it if at all possible. It’s devastating to make these kinds of decisions and they have some lasting psychological repercussions.”
How overcrowding happens
Because animal agriculture in the US is a highly competitive industry, the life cycles of the livestock and poultry being raised and slaughtered are tightly regulated for maximum efficiency. A pig typically goes through a 292- to 311-day (about 9 1/2 to 10 1/2 months) life cycle from a female pig’s impregnation through to slaughter for market, the National Pork Board explains.
That process involves four separate types of enclosures for the animals: gestation facilities for pregnant pigs; farrowing facilities for mothers (sows) and their newborns; nurseries for piglets after they’ve been weaned; and finishing barns for pigs as they grow up to market size.
Each of those facilities is usually filled to maximum capacity, for efficiency’s sake. That makes a bottleneck like closed processing plants immensely challenging for farmers. If they can’t offload mature pigs to meatpacking plants (which usually slaughter and dismember the finished pigs), then they have nowhere to place pigs coming up from nurseries. If they leave pigs in their nurseries, then the youngest piglets just weaned off their mothers have nowhere to go. If those piglets go nowhere, then pregnant pigs have nowhere to go once they give birth. A blockage at one point in the process causes problems throughout the whole process.
Poultry faces a similar problem, though given that meat chickens’ lifespans are typically only 6 to 8 weeks, farmers have a bit more flexibility and fewer built-in time costs. Pasture-raised cattle are more flexible since you can add additional cattle to the pasture, but they face overcrowding concerns as well.
What farms do about overcrowding
So, what can farms do if they’re faced with excess animals? Croney notes that they can try to slow the growth of animals, perhaps by reducing food given to them. But this comes with immense costs. “You can curtail growth by curtailing how much you feed them, but then you have animals that are hungry and crowded, which sets them up for competition around food, which can lead to injury and death,” she notes.
Pork and especially chicken plants already don’t offer much space to their animals. A 2011 survey found that pigs got on average 7.2 square feet each; the National Chicken Council reports that standard industry practice is to give about 0.8 square feet for each chicken, or barely more than a standard sheet of paper. Overcrowding due to Covid-19 could entail offering them even less space.
Farmers can theoretically place excess animals outdoors but this might be an even worse option. “In order to let them have access outdoors, much less to house them outdoors, you have to have a certain level of setup and protections for them,” Croney explains. “The types of fencing, shade, water access, protection from predators and inclement weather — you’d have to have that set up and reworked. If you have a farm with a couple thousand animals, that would be incredibly difficult to do. You certainly don’t have labor to spare to help you do that, and those systems require much more intensive oversight and management.”
For chickens, there are particular concerns apart from overcrowding or outdoor dangers that come into play when mature chickens are no longer being slaughtered. “Broiler chickens,” or chickens bred for meat as opposed to egg-laying hens, have been bred to be so large that if they’re allowed to live longer than planned, “they suffer from animal welfare problems because they could be too large relative to their ability of legs to withstand the weight,” Lusk explains. “You don’t have near that problem with pigs or cows. The animal welfare problem with pigs is the backing-up issue, and the animal welfare problem with chickens is them getting too big.”
Given these difficulties, it’s not hard to see why some farms are already opting for euthanasia. But that comes with its own difficulties. Processing plants are supposed to render animals “insensible” and unable to feel pain before slaughtering them, and to use calming practices that make slaughter as minimally stressful as possible. “As sad as even that death is, the process is typically smooth and the animals shouldn’t be able to anticipate what is happening,” Croney says. “With mass euthanasia and limited personnel, that orderly, one-by-one, careful, generally consistent process is difficult, sometimes impossible to achieve, which is why no one ever wants to be in that position.”
Croney notes euthanasia can take many forms, from gassing to bolt guns to straight-up gunshots; the latter creates obvious noise problems and is difficult to scale. “Especially if people are using physical methods with captive bolt or gunshot, people are becoming stressed themselves and having to hurry,” Croney says. “That may mean that things are not done as accurately or humanely.”
Then there’s the problem of disposal. Without processing plants that can dismember animals, ship out usable meat, and dispose of the rest, it’s not obvious what farmers can do with the animals they euthanize. JBS, a massive pork processor, is sending hogs sent to it for euthanasia by hog farmers to landfills (basically mass graves) or external meat rendering plants. As processors like JBS shut down facilities, though, more and more of these tasks may be taken up by the farms themselves, not meatpackers and meat processors. That leaves disposal as more of an open question, with options like burial on the farm itself presenting themselves.
“The entire situation is tragic,” Croney concludes, and not just for animals. “Whatever our stances on meat-eating, this is a time to be a little sensitive. There are people who are incredibly depressed, who are struggling, who really do care about their animals, and this is incredibly hard for them. The human toll this takes is not often talked about.”