The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is tasked with conducting inspections on U.S. meat supplies. This requires inspectors to travel to slaughterhouses, processing plants and other facilities across the U.S., many of which have been hotspots of COVID-19 outbreaks.
FSIS inspectors speaking to Government Executive criticized the agency’s handling of the inspection process during the pandemic, detailing unsafe working practices that are likely contributing to the spread of disease.1 Prior to April 2020, multiple inspectors said they were prohibited from wearing masks during inspections because it would create fear in the facilities.
While they’re now allowed to wear masks, FSIS is not providing them. Rather, the agency told inspectors they could use their own cloth face coverings and ask to be reimbursed up to $50 for the purchases.
Aside from the mask debacle, FSIS is shuttling inspectors around the U.S. from one COVID-19 exposed plant to another, with one inspector from Iowa, who tested positive for COVID-19, stating, “There is a less than robust approach to employee safety by the agency.”2
Meat Inspectors Exposed to COVID-19 Continue Inspections
Reports have emerged of potential disruptions to the food supply chain as meat plants, including facilities in Greeley, Colorado, and Columbus Junction, Iowa, closed due to COVID-19 outbreaks among employees and federal inspectors. However, before the closure, as inspectors in Greeley fell ill, the USDA sent another round of inspectors to the plant to supplement the workforce there.
FSIS also relocated employees from a Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Smithfield plant that closed to a facility in Waterloo, Iowa, where inspectors were also testing positive for COVID-19. While inspectors questioned the strategy of moving employees potentially exposed to COVID-19 from one hot zone to the next, FSIS told inspectors to keep working. Government Executive reported:3
“In a town hall meeting by phone … FSIS told employees that anyone who has been exposed who has not yet developed symptoms should continue working. One inspector on the call summarized the message as, ‘So just wear gloves and a face mask and work until you feel the symptoms of being sick.’ Three FSIS employees confirmed the new policy.”
FSIS has not revealed how many inspectors have contracted COVID-19, but Buck McKay, an FSIS spokesperson, said “ensuring the U.S. supply chain remains strong is [the agency’s] top priority.”4
COVID-19 Cases Spike in Meatpacking Cities
According to The New York Times, more than 40 U.S. food processing facilities are facing coronavirus outbreaks, but Tyson, Smithfield and other companies have remained tightlipped about the details, such as how many have been infected.5
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stated that it’s already known that people working in crowded conditions like those in meat and poultry processing facilities are at increased risk of respiratory infections.
In an April 2020 report, the CDC said that COVID-19 cases among U.S. workers in 115 meat and poultry processing facilities were reported by 19 states.6 The facilities employ approximately 130,000 workers and have seen 4,913 cases and 20 deaths.
“Factors potentially affecting risk for infection include difficulties with workplace physical distancing and hygiene and crowded living and transportation conditions,” the CDC noted. Meanwhile, the Times reported that COVID-19 cases in small cities with large meatpacking industries are on the rise:7
“In the county that includes Green Bay, Wis., where there are outbreaks at three meatpacking facilities, cases more than quadrupled since April 21. In St. Joseph, Mo., more than 370 workers and their close contacts have tested positive. And in Cass County, Ind., where at least 900 Tyson workers tested positive, the number of known cases surged from roughly 50 to more than 1,200 over two weeks.
The outbreaks have proved devastating to the immigrant communities that often supply much of the labor at those plants, as well as to the farmers who depend on the facilities for their livelihoods.”
Meat Shortages a ‘Symptom of Consolidation’
Bracing for expected meat shortages, Costco began limiting the amount of meat each shopper could purchase in May 2020, while Kroger warned customers that it could soon have limited inventory.8 Tyson is among the major meat processing plants that has closed a number of facilities in recent weeks due to increasing COVID-19 cases among employees.
In an effort to force slaughterhouses to remain open, President Trump signed an executive order invoking the Defense Production Act, which compels meat plants to stay open in order to protect the functioning of the U.S. meat and poultry supply chain.9
The government stated it would provide protective gear for employees, but even billionaire John Tyson, of Tyson Foods, the largest meat processor in the U.S., put ads in newspapers warning about breaks in the food supply chain.10 According to Bloomberg:11
“While Tyson pointed out that the pandemic has affected businesses of all sizes, the producers, which also include Smithfield Foods Inc., have such a stranglehold on output that it leaves the supply chain with few remedies when even just a handful plants are down.
There have been about 12 closures at U.S. slaughter plants … [in April] because of coronavirus outbreaks among employees who are jammed together on processing lines. That’s wiped out roughly 25% of pork-processing capacity and 10% for beef — enough for analysts to say that the country was weeks away from shortfalls. Meat prices are already surging.”
The problem, however, isn’t one of supply but one of consolidation, according to Christopher Leonard, author of “The Meat Racket.” Speaking to Bloomberg News, and as reported by numerous news outlets, he said, “This is 100% a symptom of consolidation. We don’t have a crisis of supply right now. We have a crisis in processing. And the virus is exposing the profound fragility that comes with this kind of consolidation.”12
Tyson, JBS SA and Cargill Inc. control the majority of U.S. beef, most of which gets processed in a limited number of large plants. Because the processing is concentrated into a small number of large facilities, a statement for the White House noted, “[C]losure of any of these plants could disrupt our food supply and detrimentally impact our hardworking farmers and ranchers.”13
While the move to keep meat and poultry processing plants open was met with criticism from unions calling for increased protections for workers in the cramped conditions, the White House cited statistics that closing one large beef processing plant could lead to a loss of more than 10 million servings of beef in a day.
Further, the White House noted that closing one processing plant can eliminate more than 80% of the supply of a given meat product, such as ground beef, to an entire grocery store chain.14
Meat Processing Consolidation a Ticking Time Bomb
The problems caused by slaughterhouse consolidation have become a threat to the U.S. food supply amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but even under normal circumstances are problematic for small farmers specializing in organic and pastured meats. As noted by National Public Radio:15
"Under the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906, farmers who want to sell meat commercially across state lines must get their animals slaughtered and processed at a meat plant that has been approved by the USDA. Government meat inspectors are required to be on the floor anytime those plants are operating.”
Further, as the Washington Examiner aptly put it:16
“To add insult to injury, as our farmers bend over backward to create under the heavy burden of strenuous regulations on our own soil, the USDA continues to import beef from Brazil’s cheaper, unregulated marketplace instead. You wouldn’t know that, though, because in 2013, Congress abolished the Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) law that would have tipped consumers off.”
Now, there’s no shortage of livestock, and farmers are even facing the possibility of having to kill livestock en masse because they have nowhere to process the meat. Under current government regulations, the USDA, not individual states, has control over how meat is processed.
Small livestock producers are forced to drive long distances to have their animals slaughtered at slaughterhouses that meet federal inspection standards — the same slaughterhouses that are now being shut down because the giant facilities are breeding grounds for disease.
Small, custom slaughterhouses are not permitted to sell any of their meat, even though it could now prove to be a lifeline to states. These facilities can only be used by the owner of the animal and their family members, employees, nonpaying guests and customers who have purchased an entire animal prior to slaughter through a share program.
PRIME Act Could Stop Meat Shortages
The Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption (PRIME) Act would allow farmers to sell meat processed at these smaller slaughtering facilities, allow states to set their own meat processing standards and allow farmers to sell meat to consumers without USDA approval. As noted by the Farm & Ranch Freedom Alliance:17
“These facilities meet state regulations as well as basic federal requirements. They are typically very small with few employees. The extensive and complicated federal regulations that apply to massive meatpacking facilities are neither needed nor appropriate for these operations, which might process as much meat in an entire year as the large facilities do in a single day.
Their small scale also means that they are better able to provide necessary social distancing and sanitation measures while safely continuing operations.”
In addition to improving access to locally raised meat and reducing meat prices, the PRIME Act would support income for small farmers while also helping establish vital infrastructure in rural communities and reducing stress to animals caused by long-distance hauling.
As it stands, consumers who can’t pay for or store hundreds of pounds of meat from a share program are unable to access meat from a custom slaughterhouse. Farmers are also unable to sell locally raised meat processed at a custom slaughterhouse at local farmers markets.
This, however, would change under the PRIME Act, which could help solve short-term supply problems as well as prompt changes that are needed in the long term. Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., who introduced the act, tweeted May 3, 2020:18
“Thousands of animals will be killed & wasted today instead of feeding families. Meanwhile Congress takes an extended vacation. Pass the PRIME Act now to allow small American owned meat processors to catch the ball that the Chinese, Brazilian, & multinational processors dropped.”
Source: mercola rss