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
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

How many people are flying? Has traveled picked up?

Flying is starting to recover to levels the airline industry hasn’t seen in months. The Transportation Security Administration announced on Oct. 19 that it’s screened more than 1 million passengers on a single day — its highest number since March 17. The TSA also screened more than 6 million passengers last week, its highest weekly volume since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. While travel is improving, the TSA announcement comes amid warnings that the U.S. is in the third wave of the coronavirus. There are now more than 8 million cases in the country, with more than 219,000 deaths.

How are Americans feeling about their finances?

Nearly half of all Americans would have trouble paying for an unexpected $250 bill and a third of Americans have less income than before the pandemic, according to the latest results of our Marketplace-Edison Poll. Also, 6 in 10 Americans think that race has at least some impact on an individual’s long-term financial situation, but Black respondents are much more likely to think that race has a big impact on a person’s long-term financial situation than white or Hispanic/Latinx respondents.

Find the rest of the poll results here, which cover how Americans have been faring financially about six months into the pandemic, race and equity within the workplace and some of the key issues Trump and Biden supporters are concerned about.

What’s going to happen to retailers, especially with the holiday shopping season approaching?

A report out recently from the accounting consultancy BDO USA said 29 big retailers filed for bankruptcy protection through August. And if bankruptcies continue at that pace, the number could rival the bankruptcies of 2010, after the Great Recession. For retailers, the last three months of this year will be even more critical than usual for their survival as they look for some hope around the holidays.

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