COVID-19

COVID-19 exposes U.S. meat supply’s dependence on a few large plants

Mitchell Hartman May 6, 2020
Heard on: Marketplace Morning Report
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At a New Seasons Market grocery store in Portland, Oregon, customers’ meat purchases are now limited to preserve adequate supplies. Mitchell Hartman/Marketplace
COVID-19

COVID-19 exposes U.S. meat supply’s dependence on a few large plants

Mitchell Hartman May 6, 2020
At a New Seasons Market grocery store in Portland, Oregon, customers’ meat purchases are now limited to preserve adequate supplies. Mitchell Hartman/Marketplace
Share Now on:
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Wendy’s is out of fresh hamburger at some locations. Costco and Kroger (which is also Ralphs, Food 4 Less, Fred Meyer and many more) are limiting the amount of pork and beef customers can buy. Meat processors including Smithfield, Hormel and Tyson have been forced to shut down plants amid virus outbreaks.

With COVID-19, the role of big meat producers is changing in the supply chain.

We’ve got plenty of cattle and hogs, but there’s a hold-up slaughtering and butchering them with big plants shut down, says University of California, Davis, agricultural economist Dan Sumner.

“We’re processing 20% or 30% less meat than we would have done a year ago,” Sumner said.

Twenty years ago, there were more smaller processors. Industry consolidation has cut the number by more than half. That’s a problem, says Sarah Sorscher at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

“COVID-19 starts to spread among workers, a very large number of people can be affected very quickly,” Sorscher said. “And shutting down just one or two of the biggest plants can easily take out 10% of the meat supply overnight.”

But Sumner says industry consolidation hasn’t made meat supplies more vulnerable to the virus.

“There’s no particular reason to think that it’s more likely to hit a large plant outside of Sioux Falls than 20 or 30 small plants circled around Sioux Falls,” he said.

He also says stockpiles of frozen meat are above average for this time of year.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

Will the federal government extend the extra COVID-19 unemployment benefits?

It’s still unclear. Congress and President Donald Trump are deciding whether to extend the extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits workers are getting because of the pandemic. Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia believes the program should not be extended, and White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said the additional money is disincentivizing some workers from returning to their jobs. Democrats want to keep providing the money until January.

As states lift restrictions, are people going back to stores and restaurants?

States have relaxed their restrictions, and many of us have relaxed, too. Some people have started to make exceptions for visiting restaurants, if only for outdoor dining. Some are only going to places they trust are being extra cautious. But no one we’ve talked to has really gone back to normal. People just aren’t quite there yet.

Will surges in COVID-19 cases mean a return to lockdowns?

In many areas where businesses are reopening, cases of COVID-19 are trending upwards, causing some to ask if the lockdowns were lifted too soon, and if residents and businesses might have to go through it all again. So, how likely is another lockdown, of some sort? The answer depends on who you ask. Many local officials are now bullish about keeping businesses open to salvage their economies. Health experts, though, are concerned.

You can find answers to more questions here.

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