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America’s meat supply is cheap and efficient. Covid-19 showed why that’s a problem.

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Johnathan Hladik was on his phone, calling one butcher after another, desperate to find a slaughterhouse that had space for a few of the Berkshire hogs that he raises on his family farm in eastern Nebraska.

It was spring 2020, the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the coronavirus was rolling through the country’s massive slaughterhouses, where employees worked in crowded, indoor spaces at a time when protective gear like face masks was scarce. Thousands of workers fell ill, forcing processing plants to shut their doors for weeks at a time. Farmers and ranchers were left to compete for limited space at smaller plants, often called “meat lockers,” that stayed open.

“All these hogs flooded all of the local lockers,” Hladik said. “I had a list of maybe 18 to 20 lockers that I called before I found one to take some hogs.”

By that point, his pigs were up to 40 pounds overweight, eroding the quality of the meat. For many farmers who raise livestock, the consequences of the backlog were worse: Millions of chickens, pigs and other animals were euthanized — gassed, shot, even aborted — and buried in the ground.

Covid-19 was a shock up and down America’s supply chain for meat, from farmers and ranchers who couldn’t find buyers for their livestock and lost revenue and animals, to grocery shoppers who encountered steep meat prices, item limits and empty shelves.

But it wasn’t the first or only such shock. Just a handful of giant companies process the vast majority of America’s beef, pork and poultry. Take the beef sector: Four companies process about 85 percent of all the cattle fed and slaughtered for boxed beef, namely muscle cuts like ribs and steaks.

That means that when one or more large meatpacking site is forced to shut down, it has ripple effects across the entire country, interrupting supplies and often raising prices. Just in the last three years, the meat supply chain has also been disrupted by a fire at a major Tyson Foods plant in Kansas and a ransomware attack that shut down JBS plants that process a fifth of the U.S. beef supply.

The meatpacking industry is highly concentrated — and vulnerable


Large, centralized processing plants offer efficiencies of scale that have helped keep meat relatively cheap for American families for decades. Moreover, concentration in meat processing isn’t exactly new. Industry groups say the four-firm concentration of meatpackers has barely changed in 25 years, and that profit margins for cattle producers and beef processors have swung up and down over that period.

Still, the pandemic has forced a reckoning, inside and outside the industry. Even in Nebraska, the country’s top cattle producer and a stronghold of the meatpacking industry, the state government is experimenting with ways to expand and diversify the meat supply system, such as helping smaller, local plants play a bigger role in the market or making it easier for farmers to sell their meat directly to consumers. The goal is to create more capacity to process livestock outside of the biggest slaughterhouses — building a more flexible and resilient network before the next crisis.

“We need more local and regional processing,” Democratic Rep. Cindy Axne said in July during an appearance at a local butcher shop in her western Iowa district. “We hear it over and over and over again.”

But that’s much easier said than done. Smaller plants face enormous challenges securing access to financing, complying with strict food safety regulations and competing with more dominant players in the industry.

Meat processing is controlled primarily by the Federal Meat Inspection Act, which requires any meat sold for public consumption to come from an animal slaughtered at a facility with an Agriculture Department inspector on hand. The law dates back more than a century — it was originally enacted after Upton Sinclair’s groundbreaking 1906 expose on the meatpacking industry, "The........

© Politico

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