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Email Content: Poultry Industry News, Comments and more by Simon M. Shane

Assessing the Response of Red Meat Plants to COVID-19


The emergence of COVID-19 resulted in profound changes in consumption of red meat and poultry in addition to an unprecedented but temporary decline in output.  Commencing in late February, consumers initiated panic buying in anticipation of future shortages.  This stressed the supply chain depleting storage and requiring rationing by most supermarkets.  As cases of COVID-19 increased in rural areas, packing plants were affected.  Absenteeism, due to COVID-19 and fear among workers, became evident at the beginning of April, progressing to a 40 percent reduction in beef output during the last week of April compared to the corresponding week in 2019.  At this time approximately 25 pork and beef plants were temporarily closed, severely restricting the supply of meat.  On April 28th, President Donald Trump issued an Executive Order mandating the reopening of plants under the authority of the Defense Production Act.  Despite ongoing COVID-19 cases in plants, production levels improved and by the fourth week of June production of beef was within four percent of the corresponding week in 2019.


A similar situation occurred in the pork industry with a temporary closure of a major plant in Iowa during the first week of April, with a rapid and progressive decline in output in other facilities to a level of 54 percent of normal capacity by mid-April. A gradual recovery at the beginning of May ocurred following the Presidential order with production attaining a level of 95 percent utilization by late-June. 


In the case of both pork and beef, interruption in packing capacity resulted in an accumulation of market-ready steers and heifers in feedlots and hogs in grow-out facilities.  This resulted in the need to continue housing and feeding beyond economic weights with resulting losses to farmers.  In the case of hogs, euthanasia was necessary in Iowa and Minnesota.


The broiler industry was less affected by COVID, but was seriously impacted by the collapse of the food service industry.  Given the shorter reproductive cycle of broilers compared to hogs and cattle, and the fact that industry is integrated, companies were able to reduce egg settings in late March with recovery by mid-May.


The U.S. was not alone in the problems of reduced packing of hogs and beef.  Many nations in the EU were impacted even through late June, but not with the intensity observed in the U.S.  This is due to the fact that the U.S. has fewer, but larger, plants compared to the EU. In many cases preventive measures were implemented in EU plants before effective control was achieved in the U.S.  Currently, Latin America and especially Brazil are now enduring the same impact from COVID as in the U.S. for many of the same reasons.


It is too early to obtain a complete understanding of both what went wrong and also what was beneficial in terms of reestablishing production. In retrospect, the major problems, comprised:-

  • Lack of prior planning for a human disease, that could reduce production. The USDA-APHIS, in collaboration with major packers, had developed contingency plans for catastrophic animal diseases based on the experience gained with HPAI in the egg and turkey industries in the Midwest during 2015.  The potential impact of a disease affecting workers had not apparently been considered previous to the outbreak.
  • The sudden emergence of COVID-19 highlighted the lack of coordination among federal, state, and local agencies. There was an obvious disconnect with respect to quantifying incidence rates and rate of spread.  There was no central coordination of responses as the red meat industry entered a downward spiral.  Leadership from the CDC, USDA, and OSHA were lacking and a reaction to the pandemic was exacerbated by divided jurisdiction, preemption of local health authorities by state mandates and an inability to assign resources for testing and protection. The response was vitiated by denial of the severity of the problem at the federal and state levels and a disinclination by some companies to recognize their obligations to employees. Along with workers, transparency fell victim to COVID-19
  • Managers of plants frequently operated with insufficient guidance concerning preventive measures. In many cases a commitment to budgets and predetermined production levels took precedence over worker health and safety.  In contrast some companies, especially those in the poultry industry, recognized the severity of COVID-19 and implemented protective measures which have now become the standard in packing and processing plants.  These principles include testing followed by quarantine of infected workers on pay; social distancing or separation using barriers on production lines and the issue of personal protective equipment.
  • The fact that many red meat plants comprised the sole or largest employer in a rural community resulted in the infection that spread in plants extended to the community of a town or county and vice versa.
  • The diverse ethnicity of workers in red meat plants impaired verbal and wtitten communication concerning risks and appropriate preventive measures.
  • Deficiencies in housing resulting from low availability and prevailing wage rates, resulted in overcrowding and multigeneration occupation. This increased the incidence rates in both plants and communities.



It is now emerging that infection rates exceeding 25 percent occurred in many plants in the U.S., and Brazil, and a specific plant in Germany recently recorded a positive rate of 64 percent applying antigen detection.


Negative publicity has affected the image of intensive livestock production as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak.  There is a solid core of opponents eager to condemn the scope and concentration of production. The factors contributing to vulnerability were unfortunately a non-recognised risk associated with efficiencies of scale allowing U.S. packers to compete in the production of relatively inexpensive protein for consumers. 


The two major unions representing workers did little to provide practical support and have collectively reinforced negative images of the industries that provide their workers, many from impoverished nations, with employment.  Media, including ProPublica, are documenting errors and missed opportunities including delayed responses and failure to mount effective responses that unfortunately will reverberate in social media.  It is also evident that pro-vegan organizations are making capital of the epidemic and its effect on the Nation’s meat supply to support their agendas.  This trend is evident in the EU and especially in the UK as denoted in recent surveys.


The fact that production in beef and pork plants was restored within six weeks after onset of COVID-19 points to the ability of the U.S. industry to respond to a severe and unique challenge despite a slow start.  It is now evident that until an effective vaccine is available and is administered to workers accompanied by serologic monitoring, the industry will continue to function in the face of an ongoing epidemic.  In the interim, measures that have been introduced should protect workers. This presumes that packers continue to conform to acceptable standards developed by infectious disease specialists and public health administrators.


The pandemic of 2020 will change the industry in many ways going forward. Realities include:

  • Fewer, better-paid and trained workers using more advanced mechanical equipment
  • Introduction of robotics will be critical to reducing the complement of line workers and will enhance efficiency. The Danish Crown hog plant in Horsens, introduced a program of installing a high level of mechanizationusing robots a decade ago. This plant with 1,000 workers was minimally affected by COVID-19.
  • Redundancy will have to be introduced into the system to allow for unpredicted events, such as the fire at the Tyson Foods beef plant in Holcomb, KS.
  • There is a need for greater coordination of responses and a clearer definition of authority and jurisdiction to respond to outbreaks of both animal and human diseases.


On balance the poultry and the red meat industries responded well to the challenge of COVID-19 given the potential catastrophe that may have occurred. Mirroring the response to the Pearl Harbor attack, the meat industry and health authorities demonstrated a slow start but achieved an effective response.

Copyright © 2020 Simon M. Shane