How Are Regulators Responding to COVID-19 in the Meat Industry?

How COVID-19 Has Affected the Market for Meat & Poultry

Shutdowns and slowdowns in meat processing

Coronavirus outbreaks and heightened cleaning protocols have significantly reduced capacity in U.S. meat processing plants—some estimate that U.S. pork processing capacity is down by almost a third. At least seventeen meat processing workers and two USDA FSIS inspectors have died of COVID-19 since the coronavirus outbreak began. In response to outbreaks in their plants, which place employees in close quarters, several large meat processing plants have closed and countless others have slowed for additional cleaning and testing. In the heavily consolidated meat processing market, just a few shutdowns have drastically curtailed meat processing capacity. The reduced capacity to process live animals has effects up and down the supply chain.

An oversupply of live animals

On the supply side, the price that farmers can charge for live animals has dropped because of the reduced processing capacity. And because the livestock industry uses just-in-time processing, it’s not financially viable for farmers to hold livestock in reserve until capacity recovers.
Though the scope of this problem has been disputed, at least some animals are being euthanized as a result of the decreased processing capacity.
Mid-April reports from a supply chain academic and an industry group spokesperson asserted that euthanasia was an unlikely last resort; but others—including Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie and an industry source—predicted that hog and cattle farmers would need to euthanize their own livestock.
The most recent reporting shows that some livestock “depopulation” is in fact underway. (A Delaware company killed two million chickens, and in a letter asking the White House for help, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds asserted that U.S. farmers are euthanizing 700,000 pigs per week.)

A decline in the meat supply

At the other end of the supply chain, commentators are predicting that the meat processing limitations will cause fresh meat shortages. The CEO of Tyson Foods predicts the same.
Grocery stores have responded. Major supermarket chains have imposed rationing of meat products. Costco announced that it would limit “fresh meat purchases . . . to a total of 3 items per member among the beef, pork and poultry products.” Albertsons has imposed a limit of two packages each of poultry, chicken, and pork per household, though it states that it “do[es] not anticipate any issues with supply” and that it is acting proactively to “prevent panic buying.” Kroger and Stop & Shop have also imposed some form of meat rationing.

COVID-19 has also shifted meat demand across channels

Demand for meat overall climbed slightly last quarter, but not as fast as it climbed in grocery stores. As consumers prepared more food at home, a spike in demand for grocery meat was partially offset by the sharp decline in meat consumed at restaurants, schools, and other food-service settings. One implication of this shift in demand: Meat products once destined for food-service settings must now be rerouted to retail markets if possible.

America has a meat store—but it’s inflexible

As of April 28, the USDA reported that there is 921 million pounds of chicken in storage and 467 million pounds of boneless beef. However, much of it

How Have Regulators Responded?

Department of Agriculture

The USDA announced last week that its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is opening a National Incident Coordination Center (NICC) to “support . . . producers whose animals cannot move to market as a result of processing plant closures.” The support will take two principal forms: identifying alternative markets for livestock if possible, and assisting with “depopulation and disposal” if not. The USDA is already working to try to connect farmers with local meat lockers and small processors, but small processors don’t have nearly enough capacity to divert the surplus livestock.
For “depopulation and disposal,” the NICC will provide captive bolt guns and cartridges, chutes, trailers, and personal protective equipment.

U.S. Rep. “Peterson also said he’ll seek a change in the law so that the USDA can retroactively compensate farmers for euthanizing healthy animals in such emergencies. He said the USDA told him it doesn’t have the authority at the moment to do that for healthy animals, just diseased animals, as it did during for chickens and turkeys in the bird flu outbreak.”

USDA has also committed to deploying the National Veterinary Stockpile and “secur[ing] the services of contractors [to] supply additional equipment, personnel, and services.”

USDA will also provide advice and cost-share funding through the Environmental Quality Incentive Program. The Program provides funding for certain kinds of disposal, with payment rates vary by disposal method and the total weight of the animals.

Small Business Administration

SBA Opens Up Loan for Farmers: For a Limited Time, Farmers Can Apply for Economic Injury Disaster Loans and Grants

Center for Disease Control
Occupational Safety and Health Administration

Even as meat plants try to reopen, they may face obstacles in showing that they meet occupational health and safety requirements. Meat plants may be subject to OSHA supervision, or may fall under a “state plan“—a state-operated, OSHA-monitored health or safety plan that must be at least as effective as OSHA in protecting workers. In either case, they may face hurdles to reopening based on OSHA’s current stance on COVID-19.

OSHA is currently investigating a meat processing plant in Green Bay, Wisconsin for potential safety violations, based on a complaint it received in April. The complaint cites workplace hazards.
What OSHA Requires during COVID-19. On its website, OSHA has indicated that “OSHA requirements apply to preventing occupational exposure to SARS-CoV-2.”
OSHA requires that employers provide gloves, eye and face protection, and respiratory protection “wherever it is necessary by reason of hazards of processes or environment . . . encountered in a manner capable of causing injury or impairment in the function of any part of the body through absorption, inhalation or physical contact.” 29 CFR 1910.132(a). More broadly, the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act of 1970, 29 USC 654(a)(1), requires that employers generally provide workers with “employment and a place of employment, which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.”

Last week, OSHA and the CDC also released joint guidance to the meat processing industry. While nonbinding, the guidance mentions several measures that employers should take: cleaning equipment, configuring workstations to ensure six feet of distance between employees, use of personal protective equipment, amongst other concerns.
OSHA’s current meat plant investigation in Green Bay, Wisconsin seems to be premised on overlapping allegations: failure to provide employees with masks or face coverings, failure to ensure six feet of distance between employees, and failure to provide information about known coronavirus cases that would enable co-workers to self-quarantine.










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