Why is there a meat shortage if farmers have plenty of animals?

The meat supply chain in the U.S. has been praised for its efficiency, but it is also incredibly complex.
/ Source: TODAY

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has touched nearly every aspect of society, upending how students learn, how employees get work done and, in many ways, how people eat.

Like much of the agriculture, food service and culinary industries, the meat industry has been far from immune to the impacts of the deadly virus.

While the initial spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. took hold in densely populated urban areas, a startling number of cases at meat processing plants in rural parts of the country have created both a public health issue in neighboring areas, as well as a massive supply chain problem.

“If there's one thing that might keep me up at night, it's the meat processing plants and the manufacturing plants," Nebraska’s chief medical officer Gary Anthone said on Facebook last month.

Download the TODAY app for the latest coverage on the coronavirus outbreak.

Dozens of processing plants across the U.S. have collectively reported thousands of confirmed coronavirus cases, forcing facilities to cut back on operating hours or shut down entirely. The closures have significantly hindered the large plants' meat production capacity, with major companies like Smithfield Foods and Tyson Foods among those reporting significant declines.

But why are people who work at meat processing plants so susceptible to the virus?

Prior to the 1970s, meat processing occurred at hundreds of plants (owned by various companies) across the U.S. Then large corporations like Tyson and Cargill started consolidating operations, replacing smaller plants with massive facilities able to process far larger quantities of meat per day. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of slaughtering houses in the U.S. has declined by 70% since the 1960s. At these concentrated operations, workers are able to process millions of animals daily.

That efficiency, however, means that problems at just one or two facilities can have a serious impact on the national supply. People who work on processing lines killing, cutting and packaging meat often stand together in extremely close quarters for extended periods of time.

In South Dakota, Iowa, and Minnesota, for example, processors have shuttered operations at three of the country’s largest pork processing facilities, which churn out about 15% of the country’s pork alone.

“Every time one of these plants goes offline, it's a huge hit to the supply chain,” Olga Isengildina-Massa, an associate professor of agribusiness at Virginia Tech University, told TODAY Food. “It creates this hourglass kind of pattern, when we have a lot of supply on the bottom, we have a lot of demand on top and all this is constrained by the ability of these huge processing plants to keep running.”

Production is already seeing a negative impact. In March, just as the virus took hold in the U.S., beef and pork production was up roughly 10% compared to the same period last year, but estimates for the first week of May show both pork and beef production have dropped by more than 30% each, according to Brian Coffey, an agricultural economist and assistant professor at Kansas State University.

“It is a major disruption,” Coffey told TODAY. “And it's not something that we've seen happen, probably, in such a short time period.”

With production capacity down, farmers have also found themselves in a tough spot. Currently, there’s no shortage of livestock, but due to plant reductions and closures, there’s nowhere for the live animals to be sent for slaughter, and many farming operations don't have the resources to keep live animals for an indefinite period of time.

Will there be meat shortages at grocery stores?

Due to supply chain disruptions, over the next several weeks, the meat case at your grocery store may start to look different — but quantities available will also depend on how other shoppers behave, not just what grocery stores are able to purchase.

According to Coffey, shoppers may find certain cuts of meat are not as readily available or that the mix of products is different. They might also notice different packaging, new brands or a smaller overall inventory.

While the selection at the store may take on a different look, the experts who spoke with TODAY agreed that widespread shortages for a prolonged period of time are unlikely and encouraged consumers not to panic or panic buy.

“I don’t think we’ll see national shortages” said Washington State University professor Randy Fortenbery. The agricultural economist told TODAY he believes we’re more likely to see regional disruptions in supply in certain parts of the country, especially areas primarily served by the plants that are now shut down. There might still be meat on the shelves for customers to buy, but Fortenbery said the limited supply could result in higher prices at the supermarket.

Will all meat products be affected?

The pandemic has impacted production at beef, pork and poultry plants, but the unique supply chains for different types of meat will have an impact on future availability.

So far, the largest shutdowns have occurred at pork processing plants. This sector of the livestock industry is also the least amenable to delays, as the time from birth to slaughterhouse has been exacted, leaving little wiggle room for farmers to hold onto the livestock before processing capacity returns to normal levels. Even waiting just a few days can have an impact on the meat quality, explained Isengildina-Massa.

“You have very little flexibility because the system is just optimized to minimize the cost and to keep things running on a just in time basis,” she said. “It just breaks my heart because these poor farmers, that's their livelihood. They take care of those animals for six months and then you just have to get rid of them. It just seems so wrong.”

For some types of livestock, farmers may be able to wait it out until plants go back online. Cattle farmers, for example, can hold on to their inventory longer, which may allow them to better absorb the disruption and experience less waste than other sectors.

Despite the recent disruption, before pandemic the U.S. had accumulated a sizable stockpile of meat products which will be able to provide a cushion for consumers. According to Isengildina-Massa, the country started the year with record levels of meat in cold storage.

What is the government doing to prevent potential shortages?

Last month, due to concerns about meat supply chain issues and the potential for shortages, President Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act by signing an executive order that designated meat processing facilities as critical infrastructure. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration jointly disseminated interim guidance for these facilities to continue operating under new safety standards. These measures apply to plants currently in operation, as well as those facilities that have been forced to close.

Plants that are still operating have shifted how workers perform their jobs. Fewer workers are processing meat on the line at any given time to allow for social distancing, sneeze guards have been installed between some stations and hand-washing facilities have been set up throughout factories.

Ultimately, the president's order for facilities to resume operations may not be enough on its own to get production back on track. According to Fortenbery, reopening is largely still a function of whether the processors themselves are ready to bring their workers back at full capacity and whether workers feel safe enough to go back to work.

Fortenbery said the industry will also need to figure out how to conduct regular testing of the workforce, and establish measures to ensure sick workers are immediately quarantined away from the plant. However, considering the limited amount of testing available nationwide, this could create a tough decision for officials.

“Whether or not that's worth doing is a question that a lot of people will have a different answer for,” he said, noting that people might not be in favor of increasing testing at meat processing facilities if it were to come at the expense of testing workers at health care facilities, for example.

How long will potential meat shortages last?

As with almost every aspect of society that has been impacted by the health crisis, experts say it’s difficult to predict how long it might take the meat processing industry to get back to pre-pandemic levels of operation. The turnaround will depend on the virus itself, whether a vaccine is developed in a timely manner and how the country manages to stem the spread in both urban and rural areas.

“It's really a question about how long does it take to get the virus under control in those communities where the processing plants exist,” said Fortenbery.

While it may be impossible to predict the duration or the virus' impact, experts agreed disruptions in the meat supply chain will not last for an extended period of time.

“We have plenty of meat. Any disruptions are going to be temporary,” said Isengildina-Massa. “We're going to bring those capacities back online as quickly as possible and we just need to be patient, just like with everything else.”