Since the pandemic began, Americans have become acquainted with something all too familiar to other parts of the world – shortages. At first, it was almost humorous. Shortages on toilet paper and disinfectant were a measure of pandemic alarm that was spreading. Then it became more serious as meat shortages became a real issue. Local grocery stores in our hometown established 2 lbs. of beef per person purchasing limits more than a month ago. This weekend there did not appear to be enough supply to even provide for those measures as much of the beef section was empty at our local grocery store.
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Americans have come face to face with a problem which many in the developing world face every day. No matter if we are talking about toilet paper, disinfectant, or meat shortages – there is plenty of supply. The problem is distribution. The chaos of the pandemic and the resulting panic purchases by consumers wreaked havoc in the supply lines. Those supply line concerns have since compounded as meat processing plants became hot zones for the spread of the pandemic from South Dakota to Iowa and Missouri to Ohio. This problem became such a concern that President Trump utilized an executive order and the Defense Production Act (literally wartime measures) to force meat processing plants to stay open.
Even that may not be enough, though. As large US meat distributors have increased in size, their influence has stretched across the industry-shaping the system for greater efficiencies. While those efficiencies result in cheaper prices for consumers, union leaders say they have also led to overcrowded, underpaid, and unsafe conditions for workers. The pandemic did not create the problems in the meat processing plants. It merely revealed the issues already there.
Since the outbreak of the pandemic through the last week of April, 20 meatpacking and processing plant workers died from the coronavirus. Another 6,500 workers were affected. At least 22 processing plants, including meat, chicken, and pork, have closed at some point. Tyson Foods published a full-page ad in the New York Times that warned, “the food supply chain is breaking.” If the processors cannot process the meat, then the grocery stores have less supply. That is what we are seeing from the consumer end. But there is a bigger problem on the producer’s end. If the processors cannot process the meat, then farmers and ranchers get backed up. They are paying more for their livestock than they can afford. In many instances, ranchers and farmers will euthanize segments of their livestock because they cannot afford to continue feeding them. And it is not an issue of merely donating the excess livestock to food banks and the poor. Processing beef, chicken, and pork is time and cost-sensitive. If the middle of the supply chain breaks, there are few ways around it. This systemic issue is what is driving the meat shortages many are witnessing today.
The pandemic is revealing the fragility of systems that many have taken for granted. One of the changes in our post-pandemic life may be the inability to operate in that level of disregard any longer.