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

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

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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