By ADAM RITSCHER
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the meat industry hard in the United States. Ten thousand workers, who have to work shoulder to shoulder in the packing and processing plants, have been infected with the virus. Dozens have died. So many workers have gotten the virus that many processing plants have had to close. By last count, 38 plants have had to close at one point or another since the pandemic began.
The result of all of these plant closings has been a dramatic reduction in the processing of meat, particularly pork. When plants shut down, farmers aren’t able to deliver their hogs. As a result of massive consolidation over the past generation, where there once were hundreds of meat processing companies, today there is just a handful. And many processing plants are so huge that they alone process a couple of percentage points of the nation’s pork. So when just one of these plants closes down, it has a huge impact.
In addition to the massive scale of the companies and plants that dominate the pork industry, it has become an industry that relies exclusively on just-in-time delivery. That means that hog farmers, who themselves have seen massive consolidation to where farms produce tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of hogs each, have had to time their operations to deliver hogs at a set weight at set times.
Most pork-processing plants, for example, are designed to process hogs that weigh no more than 300 pounds. Anything larger than that wouldn’t fit in the chutes, would be so tall it could jump out of the pens, and in general would be too big for the finishing barns and the processing plants to handle. Given that most commercially raised hogs hit 300 pounds at about six months old, if a farmer isn’t able to deliver them at the planned time to the processing plant, the farmer suddenly has a major problem on their hands.
Most modern hog farms have out of necessity had to become so in sync with the just-in-time delivery standards of the industry, that they don’t have extra barn or pen space for pigs if they cannot sell them. The price of hogs rises and falls, meaning farmers are always vulnerable to price fluctuations, but not being able to move their hogs to market at all has not been a problem that farmers have had to face in generations.
If your farm is designed to deliver 500 hogs a week to a processing plant, and suddenly that plant closes and there is no where else to send them, you can imagine how big a problem that will become in a very short period of time.
Right now, hog farmers are scrambling to deal with this crisis. Some are changing the feed mix of their hogs to try and slow down their growth. And many farmers are trying to be creative in where to house the undelivered hogs. But this problem is quickly taking on gigantic proportions and growing with each passing week. At this point, it looks like millions of hogs are going to have to euthanized.
A tiny handful of hogs can be butchered by the farmers themselves, or artisan butchers, but the scale of the problem dwarfs those kind of outlets. And the hogs can’t even be donated to food shelves, since the food shelves would need to send the hogs to a processing plant before they could distribute. Right now, the leading idea is to start creating massive landfills that millions of hog carcasses could be dumped in, and then bulldozed over.
Bloomberg News cites CoBank as estimating that some seven million hogs might already have been destroyed in this quarter alone. That’s about a billion pounds of meat lost to consumers. And in the meantime, many groceries are running out of meat supplies—and retail prices have skyrocketed.
Unfortunately, there do not appear to be any easy, short-term solutions. This unexpected crisis is, however, deeply rooted in capitalism. The massive consolidation of the industry, and the harnessing of farms into giant, specialized producers of only what is most profitable and best suited to the typical needs of the corporate leviathans that dominate this industry, are what brought us to this point.
It doesn’t have to be this way, though. In a socialist planned economy, agriculture, rather than relying on heavily specialized factory farms, could instead be organized on a more adaptable mixed approach based on crop rotation, mixed crop and livestock operations, and organic production. The food-processing industry, likewise, could be structured in a more adaptable manner that is scaled to serve the surrounding region, rather than have giant plants that service the entire country.
In a many ways, large-scale production is more productive, but it generally fails to take into account the massive, vulnerable supply and delivery chains. It results in massive pollution, and lacks the flexibility to deal with things like today’s pandemic.
Today’s industry was designed around the sole goal of maximizing profits. What we need is an industry that is designed for human needs, and that takes the environment into account. Let’s use this horrible crisis to redouble our efforts to help make such a more just and rational society a reality!