Why 1 million pigs could be euthanized due to COVID-19-related supply chain issues


         Beginning in April 2020, the US has been experiencing a meat shortage and unprecedented meat prices.

         That's because COVID-19 outbreaks in at least 167 meat-processing plants forced almost 40 plants to close.

         In an already compact industry, any one plant closure strands millions of pigs at farms.

         Business Insider visited a Minnesota hog farmer faced with euthanizing his herds.

         Could this break in the supply chain been avoided? Agricultural economist Jayson Lusk says automation in meat-processing plants could be one solution. Another? Smaller, vertically integrated farms, like Belcampo Meat Co. in Northern California.


Abby Narishkin and Steve Cameron, Business Insider

Jun 25, 2020


Following is a full transcript of this video.


Narrator: When coronavirus outbreaks shut down meat-processing plants across the US, animals headed here were suddenly stranded here.


Mike Patterson: As time has gone on and plants haven't been able to operate, that's created a big backlog of pigs.


Narrator: With nowhere to send their pigs, some farmers were forced to euthanize their herds.


Jayson Lusk: You're literally talking about millions and millions of pigs that were intended to go to market but are still remaining on the farm.


Narrator: The backup at farms led to record-breaking meat prices and cleared-out shelves. The US was in the midst of a meat shortage.


Anya Fernald: You start with the ethics of it, like, animals live and die to make your product, and then you get to the concentration of it. It's a pretty hairy beast.


Narrator: But why did this all happen? And how can we avoid it from happening in the future? America is the world's leading producer of beef and poultry. It's also one of the top producers of pork in the world. In the US alone, an estimated 9 billion animals are slaughtered a year.


In order to process all that meat, the industry is efficient and concentrated. Simply put, as many animals as possible move from the farm to the slaughterhouse as quickly as possible. When the system works, US meat prices are among the most affordable on the planet. But that efficiency becomes a problem in the face of COVID-19. For one, workers operate in tight quarters.


Lusk: They're in refrigerated environments with recirculating air. This was an environment in which COVID could apparently be spread easily from worker to worker.


Narrator: An estimated 25,000 meatpacking workers have contracted COVID-19. And outbreaks in 167 plants forced 38 in South Dakota, Minnesota, and Iowa to close. Since only a small number of plants handle most of the industry's meat...


Lusk: When any one of them closes, it has an impact on the entire industry.


Fernald: It's like the only store shut down in town and you can't get milk [laughs] if you're a farmer.


Lusk: By early May, beef and pork plants were running at about 40% below the processing volumes we saw just a year ago. So that's an enormous reduction in processing volumes and caused all kinds of disruptions.


Narrator: This has hit farmers like Mike hard.


Patterson: When COVID started really impacting the plants, our percentage of utilization of the plants just kind of kept going down and down and down. That's created a real backlog of pigs.


Narrator: Every year, Mike and his co-op send about 150,000 hogs to the Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. But when COVID-19 closed that plant, they had nowhere to send their animals.


Patterson: We got our letter April 11 that the Smithfield plant was gonna be closed. Turned out to be four weeks that they didn't receive any hogs in Sioux Falls.


Narrator: Remember, the meat industry is streamlined to be exact...


more, including video report {7:24 min.]