KANSAS CITY, MO. – The coronavirus (COVID-19) brought massive disruptions to the meat and poultry and other food production supply chains. Thousands of animals had to be euthanized on farms this year. The food waste of meat, milk and produce was horrendous. To prevent these problems in the future will require changes to improve flexibility on both the live animal and the finished food product ends of the supply chain.

A large meat processing plant is a choke point in the middle of the chain between the farmers and the consumer. When something goes wrong, such as a fire that totally disables a plant or COVID-19, that drastically reduces capacity and the live animals or other food products may have nowhere to go. On the other end of the chain, when a certain market segment is cut off such as an export customer or the restaurant industry, a backlog of product backs up in cold storage. This will slow down the slaughter line. There are ways to make centralized supply chains more robust by making them more flexible.

Strategic pivoting

Ranchers who had already established relationships with consumers and previously sold beef directly to them were economically impacted less severely during the pandemic. A survey by Beef Magazine showed that 23% of ranchers were extremely financially impacted and 31% were only slightly financially affected or had no financial effects from COVID-19. The most progressive ranchers are developing more direct-to-consumer meat sales.  

There is a huge need to build more local and regional slaughtering and processing facilities. Specialized local processors can co-exist with large meat companies. They could grow to about 20% of the market.  One large pork producer recently built more barn space to hold pigs that could not be slaughtered. Beef feedlots need to develop contingency plans for feeding hay or diverting cattle to pasture. We have learned that big is fragile and everybody must be ready for problems. From now on, we have to always be ready to respond if the supply chain breaks. A few innovative pork producers have responded by shipping their pigs from the Midwest to a plant on the West Coast that still had capacity. Pork producers in rural areas sold pigs directly to people who knew how to butcher them.

Huge amounts of milk were thrown away because it was in restaurant packages that were not labeled for supermarkets. When the restaurant packages could not be sold, dairies were dumping tankers of milk. This is a problem that should never happen again. Contingency plans should be implemented so that the packages could be instantly legally labeled for retail sale. Retail packages and restaurant packages contain the same pasteurized milk or the same US Department of Agriculture inspected beef, pork or chicken. The suppliers who deliver food to restaurants, hotels and schools need to have emergency plans so that deliveries can be instantly diverted. The truck from a distributor that would normally go to several restaurants needs to be able to deliver its load to a supermarket. I do not want to hear about bureaucracy that would prevent this. I have been in the plants and have watched them put the same meat or milk in the different types of packages. I previously suggested selling large primal pieces of pork when a meat plant becomes understaffed due to sickness. We need to find the customers who would instantly buy large primal cuts of beef and pork. Poultry processing plants should be ready to instantly produce whole chickens when staffing is short. This would help prevent having to euthanize chickens on the farm.

Thousands of pigs have had to be killed on farms. Fortunately, the large plants have come back online and are now operating at 80% to 90% capacity. The Midwest was hit the hardest and mass destruction of pigs was greatest in this area. It was at its worst point in the middle of May. Since November 2019, some plants were already exporting entire pig carcasses to China. Earlier in the year there was increased demand for US pork exports due to the African swine fever epidemic in China. A plant that was selling to this market would still be able to operate at almost full capacity.  A much smaller number of employees is required to process whole pig carcasses.

Another area of waste is meat that is in a refrigerated container waiting to be loaded on a ship for export. I learned from a June 8 Associated Press article that 150,000 container ship crew members were stuck the ships and some of them had COVID-19. Container ships are another choke point. A plan should be in place to divert refrigerated containers to either food banks or supermarkets before the meat becomes too old to be shipped. We have to accept that “big” can be really efficient and save money, but we must be ready to have alternate plans when it breaks.