Plant closures place a potential threat to meat supplies
By David B. Strickland
Poultry Times editor
WASHINGTON — With processing plant closures, panic buying and a contagious and deadly virus working its way through the nation — will this lead to a shortage of fresh meat products?
President Donald Trump, on April 28, through the Defense Production Act, issued an Executive Order defining meat processing plants as part of the country’s critical infrastructure, and that they will remain open.
A release from the White House states, “It is important that processors of beef, pork, and poultry in the food supply chain continue operating and fulfilling orders to ensure a continued supply of protein for Americans. However, outbreaks of COVID-19 among workers at some processing facilities have led to the reduction in some of those facilities’ production capacity. In addition, recent actions in some states have led to the complete closure of some large processing facilities.”
“Such closures threaten the continued functioning of the national meat and poultry supply chain, undermining critical infrastructure during the national emergency,” the announcement continued. “Given the high volume of meat and poultry processed by many facilities, any unnecessary closures can quickly have a large effect on the food supply chain. For example, closure of a single large beef processing facility can result in the loss of over 10 million individual servings of beef in a single day. Similarly, under established supply chains, closure of a single meat or poultry processing facility can severely disrupt the supply of protein to an entire grocery store chain.”
Poultry industry representative associations continue to stress the importance of increased safety steps to keep all employees safe from coronavirus to maintain the health of themselves and their families, but also to keep workplaces free from disease.
“The chicken industry’s main goal is to keep our essential workers safe and healthy,” said Mike Brown, National Chicken Council president. “Our industry is following all CDC, USDA and OSHA guidelines, and many have consulted with infectious disease physicians to develop site plans. Companies began weeks ago enacting additional measures to keep workers safe, such as increased cleaning and sanitation of the plants, temperature checks before entering facilities, social distancing measures, installing plastic dividers between work stations, paid leave for sick or at risk employees, issuing masks and other personal protective gear, among many others measures.”
Brown also stressed the need for consistency among all governmental entities and industry to ensure a safe approach going forward.
“While doing everything we can to keep employees safe and healthy, the biggest challenge has been inconsistencies among the states and many localities in enforcing CDC guidelines in plants that add to confusion and can lead to unnecessary shutdowns,” he said. “This patchwork approach is posing grave risk to the supply chain and threatening great disruption to NCC member companies. There must be a uniform approach across all states and we are hopeful that today’s announcement is a good first step in achieving that goal. NCC is urging states to immediately adopt CDC, OSHA and USDA guidelines for a uniform approach to first keep workers safe and keep Americans fed.”
With the potential of meat supply shortages, the poultry industry maintains at the moment that the supply of its product is continuing to be available.
“We’re not seeing any disruptions in chicken production or the supply chain due to COVID-19 at this time,” said Tom Super, NCC’s senior vice president of communications. “Chicken companies are taking a number of measures to keep supply flowing, including extra shifts on weekends and shifting some chicken that was for foodservice into grocery stores and supermarkets.”
The American Farm Bureau Federation shares the optimism that steps such as this will maintain the nation’s meat supply, as well as notes the hardship that plant closures place on farmers.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented crisis for American farmers,” said Zippy Duvall, AFBF president. “Farmers and ranchers face the heartbreaking decision to euthanize animals because of plant closures. It’s important for our elected leaders at all levels to understand the critical nature of this crisis.”
“We don’t yet know the details of the president’s actions to address meat packing plant closures but are hopeful it will protect the health and safety of workers while keeping farmers and ranchers in the business of providing food for families across America,” Duvall added.
“I thank President Trump for signing this executive order and recognizing the importance of keeping our food supply chain safe, secure, and plentiful. Our nation’s meat and poultry processing facilities play an integral role in the continuity of our food supply chain,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a release. “Maintaining the health and safety of these heroic employees in order to ensure that these critical facilities can continue operating is paramount. I also want to thank the companies who are doing their best to keep their workforce safe as well as keeping our food supply sustained. USDA will continue to work with its partners across the federal government to ensure employee safety to maintain this essential industry.”
U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, added “Farmers, as well as the entire food system, are suffering from the rippling effects of plant closures due to COVID-19. I thank President Trump for declaring the importance of keeping America's meat and poultry processing system functional and providing more protective gear and support for employees.”