Coronavirus Outbreaks In Meat Processing Plants Show Flaws In Our 'Just-In-Time' Food System

May 11, 2020

Outbreaks in the meat industry aren't new. In the early '90s, mad cow disease was a trade problem that affected the entire industry, halting the sale of beef worldwide. Then a large outbreak of bird flu in early 2013 was a pathogenic problem that led to thousands of birds being euthanized.

Coronavirus is a different challenge for the meat industry since it affects plants' high concentration of workers. Some meat plants have about 1,200 workers, and they're at greater risk of getting COVID-19 because they're often standing elbow-to-elbow while working.

READ: 'Workers Are Scared,' Says Wisconsin Meatpacking Plant Worker Who Tested Positive For COVID-19

There have been almost 5,000 COVID-19 cases reported at meat processing facilities across the nation. The coronavirus outbreak in meat plants has disrupted the food supply and caused beef prices to rise. Some meatpacking plants have shut down. But President Trump used his executive power to reopen plants, putting managers in a tough position.

"This poses a dilemma for them," says Dan Schafer, emeritus professor of animal sciences at UW-Madison. "They have competing interests: One interest is to run their business. Another interest is to provide food for society. A third interest is to take care of their workforce because they can’t do either of the first two if they don’t have a workforce."

Schafer says the challenge now is to spread workers out and accomplish all the same steps in more space. However, most plants in the meat industry were built 50 years ago and don't have more space to add. 

"All of a sudden, now the airspace around a worker and not simply the knife space is important," he adds. 

Even as plants reopen, the new precautions being made to prevent the spread of the coronavirus slows the process down. Schafer says that the effects of COVID-19 outbreaks in meat processing facilities show the flaws of the United States' "just-in-time" food system that has impacts far outside of plants in Wisconsin. 

Basically, Schafer says a just-in-time food system means an animal, from birth to feeding, is managed in a way to reach a "harvest ready end point," with little room for change. And that's all determined by market preferences.

Despite higher sales in grocery stores, beef sales from food services are down. With one-third of the harvest capacity off-line, total beef sales are down about 10-15% from normal. 

"This is a national problem, this isn't just a state problem," he says. "The meat that is produced by the meat plants here in Wisconsin, it would be safe to assume that it goes all over the nation and it goes to our trading partners around the world."

Schafer says it will be a while before the market finds a new normal, and in the mean time, a lot of product will be wasted. Plants getting shut down or running at a lower capacity has a devastating feeding cost for those in the production sector. Some cattle can be backlogged and sent to pasture to while plants can’t accept them, but many cattle will be euthanized if there is nowhere for them to go.

"So, when we have a disruption ... it's emotionally draining for people who produce animals to see those animals not fulfill a purpose for humankind," he says.

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