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·         Thousands of Pigs Rot in Compost as U.S. Faces Meat Shortage

·         Meat Plant Closures Mean Pigs Are Gassed or Shot Instead



Thousands of Pigs Rot in Compost as U.S. Faces Meat Shortage


Jen Skerritt and Michael Hirtzer, Bloomberg

via Yahoo Finance - May 14, 2020


(Bloomberg) -- There is perhaps no more dramatic an example of the destruction plaguing America’s food supply chain than this: Thousands of pigs are rotting on compost heaps as grocers run out of meat.


Covid-19 outbreaks at slaughterhouses have led to the largest pig culling effort the U.S. has ever seen. Hundreds of thousands of animals are already backed up, and CoBank estimates 7 million animals may have to be destroyed this quarter alone. That’s about a billion pounds of meat lost to consumers.


Some farms in Minnesota are even using chippers -- reminiscent of the 1996 movie “Fargo” -- to grind up carcasses to be spread out for compost. Rendering plants are seeing higher volumes of hogs turned into everything from gelatin to sausage casings.


Behind that enormous waste are thousands of farmers, some of whom are holding on in the hope that slaughterhouses get back up and running before animals get too heavy. Others are cutting their losses and culling herds. Pig “depopulation,” to coin an industry euphemism, highlights the disconnect that’s occurring as the pandemic sickens workers trying to churn out food supplies in mega-plants across the U.S.


“In the agriculture industry, what you prepare for is an animal disease. The thought is never that there’s not going to be a market,” said Michael Crusan, spokesman at the Minnesota Board of Animal Health. As many as 2,000 hogs will be composted a day and laid out in windrows in Nobles County. “We have lots of pig carcasses that we have to effectively compost on the landscape.”


Most meat plants that closed as workers fell ill have reopened after President Donald Trump issued an executive order to do so. But the processing industry is still far from pre-pandemic levels given social-distancing measures and high absenteeism.


The fallout has left meat cases at grocery stores across the U.S. with fewer supplies and driven up prices. Wholesale pork prices in the U.S. have doubled since April. Retail pork-chop prices also jumped 7.6% in April, the biggest monthly gain since at least 1998 when data begin.


America’s pork supply chain is designed for “just-in-time manufacturing” as mature hogs are sent from barns to the slaughterhouse, and another group of young pigs take their place within a few days after the facility has been disinfected, said Liz Wagstrom, chief veterinarian with the National Pork Producers Council.


The processing slowdowns left younger pigs with nowhere to go as farmers initially tried to hang on to mature animals for longer. But when pigs reach about 330 pounds (150 kilograms) they are too big for slaughterhouse equipment and the cuts of meat won’t fit into boxes or Styrofoam trays, Wagstrom said.


Farmers have limited options for euthanizing animals and some are setting up containers, such as airtight truck boxes, to pump in carbon dioxide and put the animals to sleep, Wagstrom said. Other methods are less common as they are more traumatic to the worker and the animal. They include gunshot or blunt force trauma to the head.


Landfills are taking animals in some states while shallow graves lined with wood chips are being dug in others.


“It is devastating,” Wagstrom said by phone. “It’s such a tragedy and it’s such a waste of food.”


In Nobles County, hog carcasses are fed into a chipper designed for the timber industry, an idea initially developed to combat an outbreak of African swine fever. The material will then be applied on a bed of wood chips and covered with more chips. This will speed up the composting significantly compared with an intact carcass. There would be no restrictions on what the private landowner could do with the material once the composting process is complete, said Crusan of the Minnesota Board of Animal Health.


Composting makes sense since burials are difficult because of the state’s high water table, while incineration...





Meat Plant Closures Mean Pigs Are Gassed or Shot Instead

Coronavirus outbreaks at meatpacking plants have created a backlog of animals ready for slaughter but with nowhere to go. Farmers are having to cull them.


By Michael Corkery and David Yaffe-Bellany, The New York Times (NYT) 

May 14, 2020


One Minnesota hog farmer sealed the cracks in his barn and piped carbon dioxide through the ventilation system. Another farmer has considered gassing his animals after loading them into a truck. And a third shot his pigs in the head with a gun. It took him all day.


These are dark days on many American pig farms. Coronavirus outbreaks at meatpacking plants across the Midwest have created a backlog of pigs that are ready for slaughter but have nowhere to go. Hundreds of thousands of pigs have grown too large to be slaughtered commercially, forcing farmers to kill them and dispose of their carcasses without processing them into food.


And yet, around the United States, scores of people are struggling to find enough to eat, lining up at food banks after losing their jobs in the economic fallout of the pandemic. Distribution issues have caused grocery stores and fast-food restaurants to run low on meat. Kroger, the largest supermarket chain in the United States, is limiting the amount of ground beef and pork that customers can buy at some stores. Costco has placed a three-product cap on purchases of fresh beef, poultry and pork. Wendy’s has run out of hamburgers at hundreds of locations.


The waste of viable pigs at a time of great need is causing both deep economic loss and emotional anguish across the nation’s pork industry.


“There are farmers who cannot finish their sentences when they talk about what they have to do,” said Greg Boerboom, a second-generation pig farmer in Marshall, Minn., who is trying to find ways to avoid killing a backlog of more than 1,000 pigs.


“This will drive people out of farming. There will be suicides in rural America.”


The number of pigs being slaughtered but not used for food is staggering. In Iowa, the nation’s largest pork-producing state, agricultural officials expect the backlog to reach 600,000 hogs over the next six weeks. In Minnesota, an estimated 90,000 pigs have been killed on farms since the meat plants began closing last month.


The crisis mostly affects farmers with large pork operations who usually send pigs to be slaughtered in giant meatpacking plants run by companies like Tyson and Smithfield.


But the obligation to kill the animals themselves, and then get rid of the carcasses, is wrenching. Last month, Senator Chuck Grassley and other leaders in Iowa asked the White House’s coronavirus task force to provide mental health resources to hog farmers, as well as money to compensate them for the pigs they have had to kill and not turned into meat. On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of 13 senators sent a letter to congressional leaders asking for funding for pig farmers and warning that “failure to have a sensible and orderly process for thinning the herd will lead to animal health issues, environmental issues, and pork producers going out of business.”


The White House has taken some steps to address the problem. Last month, President Trump issued an executive order that gave the Department of Agriculture more authority to keep plants running. And the federal government has announced plans to buy $100 million a month in surplus meat. But even as some meat plants reopen, it most likely won’t be enough or come in time to prevent all of the waste.


“The economic part of it is damaging,” said Steve Meyer, a pork industry analyst. “But the emotional and psychological and spiritual impact of this will have much longer consequences.”


Pigs are not the only casualties. Last month, a farmer in Minnesota watched an egg-processing company gas 61,000 of his birds. The poultry processor Allen Harim Foods sent a letter to farmers in April announcing plans to begin “depopulating flocks in the field.” In all, it killed nearly two million birds on farms in Delaware and Maryland last month.


Like the dumping of fresh milk and destruction of fresh vegetables on farms, the waste of viable livestock shows how finely calibrated and concentrated the American agricultural system has become after decades of consolidation. There are relatively few plants equipped to process most of the nation’s pork, leaving farmers with no real alternatives when the largest facilities close.


Mass-produced pigs live on a tight schedule. They are raised to grow to more than 300 pounds over roughly six months. Pigs that grow too much above that weight make it unsafe for meatpacking workers to hoist the carcasses along the slaughter line.


As they wait for slaughterhouses to reopen, many farmers are looking for ways to slow the growth of their pigs, raising barn temperatures to make them less interested in eating or altering the feed recipe to make it less appetizing.


At his farm in South Dakota, Shane Odegaard sends about 15,000 hogs a year to Smithfield’s meatpacking plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., which accounts for over 90 percent of his revenue. Since the plant closed on April 12, Mr. Odegaard has worked with a nutritionist to devise a new diet plan for his pigs, eliminating protein and fat to curb weight gain. He has also squeezed more pigs into his barns, and the partial reopening of the Sioux Falls facility has helped. But he still has a backlog.


“The question is how long can we hang on to this without being forced to euthanize,” he said.


Many farmers are simply running out of space. Right behind one generation of pigs, another is always being raised. Older, larger pigs have to be sold to the meatpacking plants to make room for younger batches.


One farmer ordered his staff to give injections to pregnant sows that would cause them to abort baby pigs. Others have sold live pigs on Facebook and Craigslist.


Mr. Boerboom, the farmer in Minnesota, said a stranger drove six hours from Wisconsin last week to buy 48 of his pigs to send to local butchers and then donate the pork to a food bank. Deer hunters, who know how to butcher animals, have also bought pigs from him.


But the market for live, 300-pound-plus pigs is limited, making the killings necessary on many farms.


Dean Meyer, a farmer in northwest Iowa, shares a collection of sows with eight other farmers. By the middle of April, he and his partners were running out of space.


On a conference call in mid-April, the farmers reluctantly agreed to begin killing piglets. Since then, managers supervising the sows have killed about 125 baby pigs a week, or 5 percent of newborns.


Mr. Meyer has distanced himself from the process. He said he believed the managers either gassed the piglets or used injections. But he does not want to know how it was done…


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