The Counter: As major meat processors buckle under Covid-19 crisis, busy smaller competitors fight red tape

As major meat processors buckle under Covid-19 crisis, busy smaller competitors fight red tape

by Baylen J. Linnekin

05.07.2020, 1:30pm

USDA/ Preston Keres

Could America’s small- to mid-sized meat processors pick up the lost capacity when large packers have to close? They might. But federal meat-inspection laws and regulations are standing in the way.

As Covid-19 ravages the workplaces of America’s largest meat processors, many of these giant facilities, which supply the vast majority of the nation’s beef, pork, and chicken, have shut down or reduced capacity. Securing some protection from liability concerns—however unspecified—via President Trump’s recent executive order to remain open during this pandemic, the country’s big processors are nonetheless coping with myriad existential threats to their business model. Employees aren’t showing up. Livestock farmers are culling their herds. Productivity is down.

Unlike their larger competitors, though, many smaller meat-processing plants in the United States report brisk business. These small- and mid-sized processors face some of the same workplace challenges as the big processors. But the real obstacle that’s preventing ranchers and farmers that utilize these facilities from supplying more meat to more Americans is an outdated federal law that props up the large processors while preventing local meat producers from selling steaks, roasts, and other cuts of meat to consumers in grocery stores, at farmers’ markets, and elsewhere in their communities.

The challenges of operating a large meat processing plant during a pandemic have become staggeringly obvious: asking hundreds of employees to stand elbow-to-elbow while working at breakneck speed is an ideal way to transmit Covid-19. Thousands of employees who work in those facilities—which have become epicenters of the pandemic—have tested positive for the disease. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW), the largest meatpacking union, with more than 250,000 members, reported on April 28 that at least 20 plant employees have died of the virus. But they aren’t the only ones being struck down. More than 100 of the USDA’s Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS) staff have tested positive for Covid19 so far. The union representing USDA inspectors says more than one out of every six inspectors is sick or otherwise unable to work. Two inspectors have died.

“Small producers and processors are vital to keep our food supply safe and open for consumers.” MORE