(Updated May 17, 2020) | The struggling meat industry is resorting to early slaughter as the coronavirus (COVID-19) closes restaurants and slaughterhouses.
Many producers set themselves up to cater specifically to the foodservice sector. They are now struggling to immediately cater to grocery stores. Processing plants have also closed, if only temporarily, due to high rates of coronavirus amongst workers.
While individual consumer demand is high, the breakdown of the American meat supply chain means that farmers have no way of meeting it. This has resulted in a shortage.
According to Reuters, Iowa-based farmer Al Van Beek has nowhere to ship his full-grown pigs to make room for piglets. Van Beek instructed his employees to abort all 7,500 expected piglets. “We have nowhere to go with the pigs,” said Van Beek. “What are we going to do?”
Also in Iowa, farmer Dean Meyer said he and nine other producers are euthanizing the smallest 5 percent of newborn pigs, that’s approximately 125 piglets every week. Farmers say they will continue euthanizing animals until the industry gets back on track.
According to the Nationa Pork Producers Council, hog farmers may need to kill as many as 10 million pigs by September.
Meat Plant Closures
John Tyson, the chairman of Tyson Foods—the second-largest processor of chicken, beef, and pork in the world—blamed the slaughterhouse closures for euthanized animals. In April, Tyson Foods announced it would close its largest pork processing plant due to the coronavirus.
The closure of the plant—which is also located in Iowa—came after the county’s health department linked 182 of the county’s 374 confirmed coronavirus cases to plant workers. Prior to its closure, the plant had already been operating at reduced capacity due to worker sickness and other factors.
The facility resumed limited production earlier this month following President Donald Trump’s executive order to keep processing plants open. Various other meat companies—including Smithfield Foods, Cargill, National Beef Packing Co, Empire Kosher Poultry Inc., and JBS—have also experienced production issues due to high rates of coronavirus amongst staff.
The BBC reported that Minnesota-based farmer Mike Boerboom is facing the same difficult decision as Meyer and Van Beek. According to the Minnesota Pork Producers Association, the state euthanizes approximately 10,000 pigs every day. Several farmers, including Boerboom, expressed frustration at the quantity of wasted food.
“On the same day that we’re euthanising pigs – and it’s a horrible day – is the same day that a grocery store 10 miles away may not get a shipment of pork. It’s just that the supply chain is broken at this point,” Boerboom told the BBC.
At least 14,000 reported positive coronavirus cases have been connected to 181 meatpacking facilities in 31 states, according to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.
Minimizing Food Waste
The egg and dairy industries are also struggling due to the impact of coronavirus.
Elsewhere in Minnesota, egg farmers Kerry and Barb Mergen—contracted by service industry supplier Daybreak Foods—euthanized all 61,000 of their egg-laying hens with carbon dioxide gas. Daybreak Foods owns approximately 14.5 million hens with contractor-run or company-owned farms in the Midwest.
Daybreak Chief Executive Officer William Rehm says that the company is attempting to ship eggs to grocery stores instead. But, low egg carton supplies present an issue across the U.S.
As demand falls and excess produce builds up, farmers are also dumping milk.
In New York state, Governor Andrew Cuomo recently announced the launch of the Nourish New York initiative. Under this plan, the state will buy $25 million worth of dairy products to donate to food pantries.
“This is just a total waste to me,” Cuomo said at his coronavirus briefing. “We have people downstate who need food and farmers upstate who can’t sell their product.”
Actor and activist Edie Falco called out the decision to bail out the dairy industry in an op-ed in The New York Daily News. “[W]hy would the governor squander $25 million to bail out the dairy industry, which is rife with disease and cruelty?” she wrote. “Not only is dairy not ‘essential,’ factory farming, including dairy farming, is a breeding ground for disease. If the current pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that raising and killing animals for food is a global health risk.”