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How Will the U.S. Meat Industry Change From Coronavirus?

Updated on May 22, 3:27 PM EDT

What You Need To Know

It only took a month to break the U.S. meat supply chain. Workers operate elbow-to-elbow in massive factories that have become the center of coronavirus hot spots, with thousands of employees falling sick and at least 30 deaths. Shutdowns at major slaughter plants started in early April. Even though it was just about a dozen closures, producers have such a stranglehold on output that it leaves few remedies when even a handful of facilities are down. Grocery-store shelves ran empty, beef and pork prices surged and farmers were forced to destroy tens of thousands of animals. While plants have reopened, it may be months before they get back to full capacity and workers are still getting sick.

By The Numbers

  • More than 10,000 U.S. meat-plant workers who have been infected with the disease, according to the UFCW union.
  • 81% The rate that American beef plants are operating at compared with year-ago levels
  • 90 The approximate percentage increase in wholesale pork prices since early April, according to the USDA

Why It Matters

The slaughterhouses disruptions are affecting consumers. Surging wholesale meat prices started to push up prices at grocery stores, while the risk of shortages comes at a time that shoppers continue to fill their pantries and freezers with stay-at-home staples.

Even more dramatic is the impact on farms. With nowhere to sell their animals, hog farmers are starting to cull herds. CoBank estimated that 7 million hogs may have to be destroyed nationwide in the second quarter alone.

Meat Plant Closures

The federal government has stepped in, with President Donald Trump invoking the Defense Production Act to keep meat plants running and supplies secure. But the executive order won’t be a quick fix and unions and advocacy groups have blasted the measure, calling it a potential death sentence for workers.

More than a dozen major meatpacking facilities reopened in May after Trump’s order, sending production rates back over 80% of year-ago levels and easing pork and beef prices. But infections are still on the rise as workers say they’re being forced to put themselves in harm’s way in the name of food security.

    Forcing meat-processing plants to reopen could cause long-term food supply disruptions that make current closures look trivial.

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