May 21, 2020
Many of us sheltering in place are seeing news reports about a failing U.S. food system as crops go unharvested, food prices rise, and grocery store shortages of meat and poultry make headlines. But the coronavirus pandemic did not create a vulnerable and unstable food system, it merely exposed it so more Americans can see it plainly. What the public is seeing is not a failing food system, but a system working exactly as it was designed to, built from the exploitation of people of color. Because it is built on an inequitable foundation, the U.S. food system will continue to fail farmers, consumers, and workers unless we work to make it more just and sustainable. Consolidation within the livestock and poultry industry further magnifies the negative impacts experienced by growers, workers, and consumers in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
It seems as if the country is facing a meat supply shortage because several large packing plants shut down due to outbreaks of coronavirus among workers. However, there is more meat available than it seems, and that is thanks to farmers and ranchers, plant workers, small plant operators, and others working throughout the food supply chain.
There is now greater public awareness and understanding of the structural problems of our current food system. With this understanding comes the possibility to decrease consolidation, provide equitable worker conditions, support more resilient local and regional markets, and ensure farmers and ranchers can earn a fair price.
While farmers and ranchers are doing their best to fill their vital role in the meat supply chain, they are suffering from the impacts of concentration intensified by the coronavirus pandemic. The significant consolidation in the livestock and poultry industries has come at a serious price for livestock and poultry growers. There are four major meat processing companies — Tyson, Cargill, JBS, and Smithfield — that account for a majority of the market share in the livestock and poultry industries — 84 percent in beef, 66 percent in pork, and 50 percent in chicken. This concentration has allowed unfair and retaliatory practices to become standard in the industry. For decades, growers have shared examples of unfair contract terms with no room for negotiation, lower pay based on factors outside of the growers’ control, a diminishing open market for cattle, and increasing corporate control over animals from start to finish.
“There’s no competition because it’s with them [the companies] and they’ll squeeze and squeeze you and you just have to take it. You’re out on a limb and they can cut that limb anytime they get ready. The companies make [and] they are the rules and regulation.” Carlton Sanders, former poultry grower
As large meatpacking plants close or reduce hours and diminish the meat processing capacity in the country, growers are left with animals that cannot be processed which means the growers will lose money. Poultry growers have been asked to depopulate flocks. Hog producers are euthanizing thousands of animals on the farm. In each instance, humane euthanization and disposal protocols must be followed and can create an additional financial burden on producers. There is also an emotional toll on growers forced to kill healthy animals.
“[The companies’] [b]ad decisions are affecting everyone. [It’s] [t]rickling down to farm level because of depopulation, destroying eggs in hatchery, expanding down time (the out time between flocks before placing a new flock), it will take a while to fire it back up. This is a great example of the fact that the way the system is set up now isn’t sustainable.” Mike Weaver, President of the Contract Poultry Growers Association of the Virginias
In this unsustainable system, workers are also negatively affected. Thousands of people working in large meat processing facilities have fallen ill from COVID-19 and at least thirty people working in those facilities have died from the disease. The elbow-to-elbow environment of the processing lines and large number of people working in these facilities have been prime conditions for the virus to spread. The lack of personal protective equipment has also contributed to the spread of the illness. For more information visit the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) blog.
The small percentage of the meat and poultry supply chain that is not tied up in consolidation is still operating during the pandemic, and providing farmers with options to continue processing animals and consumers with options to continue purchasing local or regional products. These businesses have been able to adapt quickly to fill the gaps in the meat sector, through processing and sales methods that allow for social distancing. A shift towards supporting small and mid-sized slaughter and processing plants can ensure that a strong local and regional meat and poultry supply is readily available, and that further consolidation in this sector does not continue to occur.
“I am very confident that we are properly positioned to take the lead in helping folks find a real relationship with what’s on their dinner table,” said Kenya Abraham, a farmer and owner of Slak Market Farm which has provided consumers with local, regenerative meat during the pandemic.
Unfortunately, there are not enough small harvest facilities to meet the demand from the farmers and ranchers that have lost access due to large plant closures, even though small plants are operating at maximum capacity. This is, in part, due to the decline in small plants over the last several decades, which has increased consolidation in this industry. According to Weaver, in the past, farmers had more options.
“Thirty years ago, [there were] 10,000 [small] meat processing operations in the country, and when they got sick, someone else [was available to fill the demand],” said Weaver.
However, the pandemic has elevated conversations on how to reduce consolidation and increase the capacity of small and mid-sized slaughter and processing facilities.
“One positive out of this whole debacle is now there is an emphasis and conversation on the need for more regional processing. And not just a grinder to pull meat out of the big system, but medium scale slaughter facilities,” said Mike Lorentz, co-owner of Lorentz Meats, a small, federally inspected, family-owned slaughter, fabrication and further processing meat business that has been serving the local area for the past 50 years, with Organic Prairie as a key financial partner since 2012.
Even though small meat and poultry plants are operating at a higher volume during the COVID-19 pandemic, Lorentz says, “customers are requesting more than we can produce.”
This means that for farmers and ranchers that are able to shift some of their product from large to small plants, there can still be a long wait due to the increase in demand, and additional infrastructure and investment is needed to ensure these options remain accessible to farmers and ranchers throughout the pandemic and beyond.
“Unfortunately, our infrastructure is not initially available for growth,” stated Jessica Roosa, Owner of This Old Farm Inc., a farm and federally inspected small processing facility. “The pandemic has shown that there is additional supply as farmers shift from the large commodity processors and selling market animals to desiring to fulfill community needs for food by utilizing community scaled processing establishments. Unfortunately, this strain has locked up existing processing capacity booking us out to 2021.”
Small and mid-sized plants that process for farmers and ranchers are concerned about the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on their businesses. There is a real concern that as the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) inspectors move from large plants shutdown due to COVID-19 outbreaks to small plants, this transition may spread the virus to small plants that have yet to see an outbreak. There are also concerns about the long-term costs associated with the pandemic responses that small plants have put into place.
“We have implemented an essential worker premium pay for all our staff, combined with investments in physical barriers and PPE, our overall margin is suffering,” stated Lorentz.
Similarly, for This Old Farm, Inc., funds to expand their capacity and infrastructure would help increase slaughter capacity.
“As we look at increasing processing infrastructure through increased staff requiring additional training, increased cooling capacity for work in process products, and increased barn space for livestock holding prior to slaughter, any funding available would be greatly appreciated,” said Roosa.
Financial support and pandemic response supplies are necessary to ensure small plants, workers, and FSIS employees that work in small, federally inspected plants, are able to protect human health, increase infrastructure and access, and mitigate the financial, physical, and mental toll. If several small plants close during this pandemic, and there is no support to ensure they can reopen, the permanent loss of more small plants is inevitable.
To address the issues of consolidation, major reform is needed to restore competition to the livestock and poultry industry. The Packers & Stockyards Act was enacted to promote competition within the industry but lacks the regulation needed to enforce its provisions.
Food workers, small and mid-sized plants, farmers and ranchers, and others impacted by the pandemic need financial and healthcare support during this time. Visit the HEAL (Health, Environment, Agriculture, Labor) Food Alliance action page for more information on how to support farmers and food workers during COVID19.
You can also purchase meat and poultry products directly from a local farmer. The Niche Meat Processors Assistance Network has a list of local and regional meat and poultry products you can buy online. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) has also posted a National Guide to Finding Local Food on our website.
As Congress also continues to discuss our food system and how to improve the meat and poultry sector, NSAC will continue to update everyone on advocacy steps you can take to ensure a more just, equitable, and sustainable food system.