Meat shortages are looming across U.S. and Canada

empty grocery store shelves
© K Martinko – Empty shelves at my local supermarket

Numerous meat processing plants have shut down, due to COVID-19, raising questions about food security and diet.

In the last few weeks, several large meat processing plants in the United States and Canada have shut down, due to outbreaks of COVID-19. Tyson's beef facility in Pasco, Washington, has closed indefinitely, as has two of its big pork plants. Smithfield's pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota has also shut down. Bloomberg reports, "At least eight major U.S. meat facilities have seen halts in the space of a few weeks." In Canada, three huge facilities process 95 percent of the country's beef, and two of them have reported COVID-19 outbreaks. One in Alberta has just shut down, with no foreseeable date to reopen.

This raises many tough and pressing questions: Why are employees at these plants such prime candidates for spreading the virus? How has meat production become so centralized, thus making the food supply precarious when shutdowns occur? Will there be meat shortages, and how does that affect farmers?

Regarding the first question, Gosia Wozniacka writes for Civil Eats that "COVID-19’s rapid spread among the ranks of food processing workers was sadly predictable." Conditions for these workers are notoriously bad. They work "shoulder to shoulder in crowded, enclosed spaces," with limited access to protective equipment and no plexiglass barriers, on production lines that have been speeding up in recent months, due to new waivers approved by the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service. Many of the workers are undocumented migrants who do not have benefits to cover health care costs or time off work. And when an employer offers a $500 bonus to show up at work during the pandemic (as JBS SA has done), it's a tough offer to turn down.

As for centralization, the number of meat packing plants has shrunk in the past 30 years. There were 119 federally inspected beef processors in Canada in 1988, but now there are only 20, according to the Toronto Star. Many of the smaller facilities have been unable to compete. They can't "achieve greater production efficiencies in a high-cost sector, buy cattle from ranchers for better prices, and meet rigorous inspection and quality regulations," said Sylvain Charlebois, director at Dalhousie University's Agri-Food Analytics Lab. In the words of Elaine Powers, a professor at Queen's University:

"People have been sounding the alarm on it for a while, but no one pays any attention unless there’s a problem. It works for big multinational corporations because they make lots of profit, but there’s a price. The price right now is the security of the food supply."

beef packaged at supermarket© wanaktek via Twenty20

And that supply is under threat. While the U.S. has roughly a two-week supply of meat in frozen storage, after that people can expect to see empty shelves at the grocery store because any factory shutdown will last at least two weeks for safety reasons. Not only will shoppers be out of a key ingredient and meatpacking employees out of a job, but farmers with livestock on hand are left with few options for where to send their animals for slaughter. Wozniacka says,

"Already, some feedlot owners fear they may have difficulty selling their cattle. Economists estimate processing plant closures may result in falling cattle and market hog prices. And at least one chicken processing company has said it will be forced to cull – or kill – up to two million chickens due to staff shortages."

It's clear that we need a different way of approaching food processing in order to avoid future instability. A decentralized approach to meat processing, with more regional facilities, could reduce vulnerability to closures and open up markets for farmers. Fewer workers could be affected by shutdowns, if they occur, because there would be spread out among more facilities. All of this drives up the cost, however, which means that people need to be willing to pay more for meat; and, as Charlebois tells the Toronto Star, "The architecture of the industry is a product of what we want as consumers: we want cheap food."

I like to think this is changing; at the very least, I see it shifting in my own community, where the local food co-op is so swamped with orders for regionally-produced foods that it shut down for a week to get through the backlog. As more local food producers embrace online stores, becoming more accessible to buyers who may not have supported them previously, their market share will grow. CBC reported last week that 50 percent of respondents to a Dalhousie University study say they intend to buy more local products once the pandemic is over. (Last week the number was 42 percent.)

I hope, too, that empty meat shelves will encourage people to experiment with plant-based eating, whether spurred by necessity, a desire to save money, or a sense of disgust at the dirtiness of the meatpacking industry. First there was mad cow disease, then swine flu, and now this – more proof of the connection between meat consumption and infectious diseases. Combined with the sped-up processing lines and fewer safety inspections, eating industrially-raised meat is enough to make anyone squeamish.

It remains to be seen how long these closures last and what shortages will look like, but one thing is for sure – there's never been a better time to start experimenting in your kitchen with tofu, chickpeas, and beans.

Meat shortages are looming across U.S. and Canada
Numerous meat processing plants have shut down, due to COVID-19, raising questions about food security and diet.

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