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The U.S. meat industry is facing losses of up to $20 billion as a result of the coronavirus, according to reports.
The pandemic has had a significant impact on the meat supply chain: lockdowns across the States meant that eateries including school canteens, restaurants, and fast-food chains did not require their normal orders.
In addition, high infection rates in slaughterhouses led to them being branded COVID-19 hotspots – leading to the closure of more than 20 plants around the country back in April. As a result, numerous animals were ‘depopulated’ – i.e. killed by farmers as they couldn’t go through the normal system. This, say reports, resulted in livestock prices falling, and wholesale prices rising.
Infections and deaths
According to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, which has been compiling data of the positive cases and deaths, as of June 9, there have been at least 24,000 reported positive cases tied to meatpacking facilities in at least 232 plants in 33 states, and at least 86 reported worker deaths at 38 plants in 23 states.
Nonprofit the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine explains why the infection rates in these facilities are so high, saying that as workers are lined up in close proximity, viruses are easily spread within the slaughterhouse environment.
“Although studies show that infectious viruses easily survive during refrigeration and freezing, meat companies do not routinely test the extent to which meat products are contaminated with the virus,” it added.
The closure of these slaughterhouses led to John Tyson – president of meat giant Tyson Foods – taking out full-page ads in national newspapers, warning of impending shortages.
As a result, president Donald Trump signed an executive order, compelling the facilities to stay open, telling reporters that the slaughterhouses closed because of ‘sort of a legal roadblock more than anything else’ adding that the order solves ‘liability problems’.
The move has been unpopular with unions, with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union saying: “We only wish that this administration cared as much about the lives of working people as it does about meat, pork and poultry products.”
‘Pretty fragile supply chain’
By mid-May – some weeks after Trump issued the order at the end of April – pricing was starting to return to normal, though CNBC reports that ‘concerns over a long and costly recovery remain’.
Joe Parcell, director of applied social sciences and professor of agribusiness management at the University of Missouri, told the outlet: “Is this a once in a century event? Should we respond accordingly? Or is this something that we need to adapt to going forward? If we think it’s going to be with us then yes, it’s a pretty fragile supply chain, mainly because we’ve focused on giving consumers what they want, high-quality food at the cheapest price possible.
“If we were to back away from that and make it a little bit, maybe a more robust supply chain, maybe a little bit smaller processors, it’s going to cost consumers a little bit more. So there’s a trade-off there.”