American Prospect – Monopolies in Meat: Endangering Workers, Farmers, and Consumers

Monopolies in Meat: Endangering Workers, Farmers, and Consumers

Deregulation has led to Big Ag’s giant slaughterhouses, where COVID-19 is rampant and the supply chain grinds to a halt.

by Ron Knox

May 4, 2020

Francis Gardler/Lincoln Journal Star via AP

The Smithfield Foods plant in Crete, Nebraska, which will continue to operate on a reduced schedule. At least 14 major slaughterhouses have closed due to virus outbreaks.

At the tiny Platte Locker Plant slaughterhouse in Platte, South Dakota, the phone has been ringing off the hook.

The day after the giant Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls shut down after the coronavirus had infected scores of its workers, farmers and feedlots with a supply of cheap hogs and nowhere to butcher them turned to Platte Locker, a local independent meat processor which before the crisis had been butchering just a few cows and hogs a week.

“We could have easily had 30 hogs in here this morning to butcher,” says Karen Warejcka, who co-owns Platte Locker with her sons, Wade and Ryan, and her husband Rollie. The problem at the moment isn’t a lack of animals to butcher or customers to buy the meat, she says, it’s that they don’t have enough help to keep up with demand.

A few hundred miles to the south, in McPherson, Kansas, Krehbiels Specialty Meats has seen a similar bump in business. With big-box-store meat coolers depleted and giant slaughterhouses shuttered as the pandemic sweeps through their workforces, shoppers and farmers alike have turned to small-scale slaughterhouses throughout the country in hopes of finding a way to keep meat on the table and money coming in.

“You go to a box store and you can’t get meat,” says Zach Krehbiel, who runs production at the plant. “That’s when everyone remembers these local guys that have freezers full of it.”

President Trump’s executive order to reopen the 14 or more meatpacking mega-plants shuttered after the coronavirus raced through their workforces displayed his characteristic indifference to low-paid workers who, in the best of times, perform the highly dangerous tasks of turning whole animals into bacon and burgers.

It may not remedy the nation’s sudden shortage of meat, either.

The network of smaller, mainly rural slaughterhouses won’t be able to offset the disruptions in meat availability Americans can expect in the coming weeks.

Stricken with the wildfire spread of COVID-19 among their employees, meat processing plants around the country began closing weeks ago. The supply of pork in America is down by about a third. Smithfield Foods, the country’s top pork producer and processor, has shuttered at least five facilities so far, including its massive plant in South Dakota that produces around 4 percent of the nation’s pork. MORE