When a meat processing plant closes, farmers need to kill their pigs

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com, or follow me on Twitter.


Things get really tricky on the other side of that bottleneck, where thousands of farmers have planned the lives of their animals around a schedule that terminates at those meatpacking facilities. If those plants aren’t operating, it’s not like they can just keep the cows, chickens, or pigs in a nearby field.

“If you hold them, they gain weight and you have to feed them, and that’s expensive,” Mary Hendrickson, a rural sociologist at the University of Missouri, told Recode. “And if they gain too much weight, then they’re going to be too big to be processed in these very standardized meat plants, like Smithfield.”

“So you might try to hold them up” and keep the animals waiting in a feedlot, Hendrickson added. “Or you’re going to kill them, euthanize them.”

…Now imagine this at scale. According to Jayson Lusk, an agricultural economist at Purdue University, the meat processing capacity in the United States is down by about 40 percent. In the pork industry alone, that amounts to 200,000 pigs that won’t get sent to slaughter, because the meatpacking plants that would process them are closed or otherwise unavailable. If nothing else changes, those 200,000 excess pigs a day become a million pigs a week with nowhere to go but a mass grave.

“I think that those numbers are pretty staggering,” Lusk said. “But that’s the reality of the situation.”

The pork situation is actually more forgiving than what’s happening to beef. While hogs take about nine months to get to slaughter weight, cows can take up to 24 months. So euthanizing and burying a herd of cattle could send ripple effects through a farm’s productivity for years, since euthanized herds mean lost revenue and less investment, squeezing farmers who were already fighting to compete in an industry with tight margins.

…This centralized model for meat production, especially for beef, hasn’t changed much in the last hundred or so years. The system built by the original Big Five became a paradigm for the modern industrial agriculture business in the United States, and some of those companies still have a tight grip on America’s food supply. Swift and Company is now part of JBS USA. Armour and Company got bought by ConAgra, and the Amour brand was later sold to Smithfield Foods. Meatpacking remains consolidated to a few dozen Midwestern processing plants, many of which are owned by a handful of huge corporations, like JBS and Smithfield. That’s why when a few of these processors get shut down, due to a pandemic or something else, the country’s entire meat supply suffers.

“The meat supply system relies on a very efficient, well-managed set of logistics,” said Maureen Ogle, historian and author of In Meat We Trust. “But the problem right now is that the coronavirus has disrupted at least one critical link in the meat supply chain in a way that has never been disrupted before, and that one disruption is rippling through the whole system, causing bottlenecks and all kinds of other issues.”