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A distressed Red Angus cow appears wet at a market.
There have been nearly 5,000 reported cases of workers with Covid-19 at 115 meat processing plants nationwide.
Amilcar Orfali/Getty Images

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America’s meat shortage is more serious than your missing hamburgers

The meat supply chain is breaking down, but that’s only part of the story.

Adam Clark Estes is the technology editor of Vox. Prior to joining Vox, Estes covered the intersection of technology and politics at Gizmodo, Vice, and the Atlantic.

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.

A pig standing amidst other pigs looks up.
Despite plant closures and reports of shortages, the United States continues to export pork to China.
Carsten Koall/Getty Images

It was technology that laid the groundwork for America’s hyper-consolidated meat supply. The innovation of the refrigerated rail car in the late 19th century meant that meat could be shipped across the United States more easily than animals. Chicago meat magnate Gustavus Swift’s company perfected the design for the first “ice boxes on wheels,” enabling the shipment of meat across the United States and the world. Another Chicago firm, Armour and Company, became an early adopter of refrigerated boxcars, and consolidation of the industry followed. By the turn of the century, the “Big Five” packers controlled the vast majority of the meat industry, including the infrastructure that connected farms to processing plants to the dinner table, where Americans were suddenly enjoying more kinds of meat for lower prices.

This centralized model for meat production, especially for beef, hasn’t changed much in the last hundred or so years. The system built by the original Big Five became a paradigm for the modern industrial agriculture business in the United States, and some of those companies still have a tight grip on America’s food supply. Swift and Company is now part of JBS USA. Armour and Company got bought by ConAgra, and the Amour brand was later sold to Smithfield Foods. Meatpacking remains consolidated to a few dozen Midwestern processing plants, many of which are owned by a handful of huge corporations, like JBS and Smithfield. That’s why when a few of these processors get shut down, due to a pandemic or something else, the country’s entire meat supply suffers.

“The meat supply system relies on a very efficient, well-managed set of logistics,” said Maureen Ogle, historian and author of In Meat We Trust. “But the problem right now is that the coronavirus has disrupted at least one critical link in the meat supply chain in a way that has never been disrupted before, and that one disruption is rippling through the whole system, causing bottlenecks and all kinds of other issues.”

You could argue Upton Sinclair tried to warn us. Consolidation of the meatpacking industry had begun years before The Jungle grossed out the world, but while the legislation that followed in the early 20th century improved certain aspects of how processing works, Americans were already hooked on cheap, readily available meat and seemed unwilling to part with the luxury, regardless of how despicable the industry was. So the industry didn’t change. Many people looked right past the plight of the immigrants working Chicago’s meatpacking plants, and the big meat corporations continued to exploit the cheap labor. A hundred years later, workers in meatpacking plants are getting sick and dying right now, but most Americans are instead focusing their attention on Wendy’s being out of burgers.

Supply chain struggles aren’t the same as shortages

In a full-page ad that ran in the New York Times and other papers on April 26, Tyson Foods chair John H. Tyson said “the food supply chain is breaking” and warned that “millions of animals — chickens, pigs, and cattle will be depopulated because of the closure of our processing facilities.” Two days later, President Trump issued an executive order, declaring meat processing plants to be “critical infrastructure” and attempting to keep workers on the line. Unions cried foul, arguing that corporate interests would continue to put profits over their members’ lives. Public health officials called to close more plants experiencing outbreaks, but in some instances, the government kept those plants open.

There was no meaningful meat shortage at the time. Contrary to what the Tyson ad said, the closures of meatpacking plants have so far only rattled the food supply chain, causing meat prices to go up and stores to run out of certain items.

Even as dozens of processing plants were closing due to outbreaks, the meat giants had at least a couple weeks’ worth of frozen meat in storage that would keep grocery stores in stock. The US commercial stockpile of meat was actually especially large this spring, after the meat industry had ramped up production in anticipation for greater demand in China, where an outbreak of African swine fever had ravaged its pork supply. Despite Trump’s order and the public’s worrying over shortages, pork exports to China were still surging in early May.

However, availability issues did start to crop up after stay-at-home orders shifted eating habits across the country. Empty shelves in grocery store meat departments led to rationing, and the prices of popular items like chicken breasts and ground beef went up. Restaurants closed and the distributors that supply them found themselves with a surplus of meat that wasn’t packaged or labeled to be sold in grocery stores. Some distributors actually opened to the public, selling sides of beef and other wholesale cuts to families brave enough to do a little butchering at home. As time has gone on, more primal and subprimal cuts of meat have started showing up in grocery stores, too.

“That’s a direct reflection of two things,” said Lusk, the economist. “One is the reduced availability of labor in the packing plant. The second thing is, some of it may due to the fact that we’re pulling inventory out of cold storage.”

You should expect to see more of this in the coming weeks and months. As the supply of retail cuts of meat goes down, what does show up in your grocery store might look a little different as distributors scramble to meet demand. That, and prices will go up. Beef trimmings, which are used in Wendy’s burgers, cost 25 cents per pound on April 1. By the first week of May, they were up to $1.93 a pound. So Wendy’s could get beef, but it’s running low on burgers because beef is getting too expensive for the fast food market right now.

What’s more serious than the shortage

There is another potential future, one that’s much scarier than the one where we suffer from expensive ground beef. It’s entirely possible that meatpacking plants will continue to shut down due to Covid-19 outbreaks, and this will lead to years of disruptions to the American food supply. Based on the level of panic in the boardrooms of companies like Tyson Foods, this doesn’t just seem possible. It seems likely.

In a May 4 investor call, Tyson said that its hog processing capacity was down 50 percent. One economist told the Washington Post that the figure is actually closer to 75 percent. With many of its plants closed and others operating at reduced capacity, Tyson said it expects “to continue to face slowdowns and temporary idling of production facilities” in the near future due to worker shortages and cleanings. “We will not hesitate to idle any plant for deep cleaning when the need arises,” Tyson chief executive Noel White said on the call.

A white chicken with a red comb stands in a group of other chickens.
In the vertically integrated poultry industry, large corporations like Tyson own the chickens, and the farmers that raise them work as contractors.
Dimas Ardian/Getty Images

The situation isn’t much different for the other major meat processing companies. Smithfield has closed plants in Wisconsin and Missouri, as well as its massive Sioux Falls plant, which is one of the nation’s largest. Cargill shuttered plants in Pennsylvania and Nebraska. JBS USA shut down its beef production facility in Colorado and a pork plant in Minnesota. The latter recently reopened with a new option “to provide producers with a humane euthanasia option.” This is another way of saying that the corporation will help farmers kill and bury their animals rather than process them for human consumption. Other plants are reopening with social distancing in place, which slows down the processing line and allows only a limited number of workers to return.

Meanwhile, the conditions for the animals in all of these situations are potentially worse than before as uncertainty leaves them waiting longer in boxcars and holding pens rather than living in open spaces.

One would think that the closure of so many large meatpacking plants would mean that small and midsize processors could handle some of the backlog. That certainly sounds better than killing millions of cows, pigs, and chickens and then burying them in mass graves. But because of the way the meat industry is structured, this just isn’t possible.

“The top four beef processors process over 80 percent of the heifer slaughter, and that is the beef that generally gets sold through the grocery stores,” explained Hendrickson, the rural sociologist. “Over 60 percent of poultry and pork are processed by the largest firms.” She added that poultry is so vertically integrated that corporations like Tyson actually own the chickens themselves, and everybody involved in getting that chicken to the store is just a contractor for Tyson.

The smaller processors don’t have the capacity to deal with all these cows, chickens, and pigs. The coronavirus pandemic does not have an expiration date, so we don’t know how long these plants might struggle with outbreaks among workers that will further delay processing or shut down more plants. Even with some version of social distancing in place, it’s apparent that these facilities, like nursing homes and prisons, are especially prone to Covid-19 outbreaks.

These facts ultimately add up to an unnerving amount of uncertainty for farmers, who don’t know if the animals they’ve been raising for months or years will make it to the slaughterhouse or get dumped in a ditch. Farmers have to do this or they stand to lose more money by attempting to keep the animals alive long enough to get sold to a meat processing plant. Some farmers might be able to sell the carcasses to a rendering plant, where they can be processed into ingredients for things like pet food and shampoo.

It’s also bad news for the small and medium meat processors, which simply aren’t designed to handle the large volumes required to keep the supply chain intact. It’s troubling for grocery stores because all of the turmoil in the meat supply chain could eventually change the way people eat. (There’s already evidence that plant-based food businesses are booming.) And for consumers like you — well, you don’t know if you’ll be able to afford to eat hamburgers or chicken fingers or bacon this summer.

“We Americans want what we want,” said Ogle, the historian. “We have a deep sense of entitlement when it comes to food.”

There’s probably not going to be a meat shortage anytime soon. You probably will continue to enjoy meat, although it might not be as cheap or readily available as it used to be. Over time, there is evidence that the American food supply will be more chaotic and unpredictable, too. Along the way, more poorly paid workers in meatpacking plants will probably die. More animals will die, perhaps millions more. Some farmers might lose their land.

So it’s not really about the burgers. There’s a version of America and its food consumption habits that existed three months ago that might never exist again. Some might feel entitled to getting that back. Others will find something new to want.

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