As meat-processing factories struggle to reopen, govt. documents warn of shortages

On May 7, Smithfield Foods meatpacking plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., site of one of the biggest outbreaks of the coronavirus, reopened after coronavirus infections swept through the workforce.

A 20-year veteran of the company described to Yahoo News her experience of returning to work on May 11 after taking a COVID-19 test four days prior. She hadn’t received the results by the time she arrived for her first day. Her temperature was taken on the way in, but she only gave verbal confirmation that she was not infected.

The worker, who asked not to be identified because employees at the plant were told to refrain from speaking to the media, was given two moveable plastic sheets on poles to provide a barrier between her and the workers next to her, and new protective equipment, including a face shield and a mask, which made the already grueling work even harder.

“The face shield is s***,” she told Yahoo News. “It fogs up and drips down my face.”

The Smithfield Foods pork processing plant
The Smithfield Foods pork processing plant, Sioux Falls, S.D. (Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images)

The Smithfield plant, one of 14 meat-processing facilities to reopen after outbreaks spread among the workforces, is under intense oversight from the CDC.

As COVID-19 ravages meatpacking plants throughout the country, beef and pork options are dwindling in grocery stores. Consumers are beginning to realize just how much of their meat consumption depends on a flawlessly executed assembly line of some 2,000 workers and a supply chain vulnerable to disruptions. Now, new internal reports from the government warn that some parts of the country may see meat shortages by the end of the month.

“Analysts suggest that meat supply chain disruptions could see 20 percent higher prices than last year and potential spot shortages of meat in certain markets by the end of May,” says an internal government senior leadership briefing slide dated May 12, and reviewed by Yahoo News.

The briefing, marked for official use only, was produced by the Departments of Homeland Security, Health and Human Services and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

A separate DHS document, dated May 13, says that while there won’t be general food shortages in the U.S., the country is likely to face shortfalls in some areas. “COVID-19 probably will reduce the variety of food available in the United States as certain food processing facilities close for days or weeks to mitigate COVID-19 spread,” the document says. “The food and agriculture workforce is especially vulnerable to contracting COVID-19 due to close working quarters and a lack of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).”

While some consumers are already being caught by surprise as the site of empty meat shelves at the grocery store, the government has had multiple warnings. For over a month, DHS, HHS and FEMA reports warned of breakdowns in the supply chain, ranging from outbreaks of infection among meat-processing workers, to shortages of chemicals and equipment needed at those facilities, according to more than a dozen daily updates reviewed by Yahoo News.

DHS, HSS and FEMA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Those warnings came after an internal government briefing from the beginning of April, previously reported by Yahoo News, predicted possible food shortages, including for meat.

Since that time, at least a dozen meat plants owned by meat giants Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods, Cargill, USA Holdings and JBS have paused operations, though only two are still closed as of May 14. At least 213 meatpacking and processed food plants and nine farms have confirmed cases, and approximately 14,259 meatpacking workers have tested positive for COVID-19, with 65 deaths, according to the Food and Environment Reporting Network.

Following the recent openings, pork processors are now operating at about 80 percent of their normal capacity, while beef is at about 75 percent. “That number was clearly smaller a few weeks ago,” said Malone. “But we have some pretty incredible rebounds.”

Cargill meatpacking plant
A Cargill meatpacking plant in Fort Morgan, Colo., remains in operation after as many as 18 employees contracted the coronavirus. (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

The CDC has published guidelines that all plants are aiming to follow, but experts say there should be some organized effort to help ensure that the supply chain is stable. “It hasn’t been discussed but it is clear that we need government establishing regulations,” said Miguel Gomez, a professor of economics at Cornell University, in reference to worker safety.

In a comment to Yahoo News, the CDC said that it has developed guidance to help meat- and poultry-processing facilities decrease the spread of COVID-19, and that it is working closely with states.

“State and local health departments are heavily involved in decisions related to the plants and their employees,” the CDC said. “States were asked to provide aggregated data concerning the number of meat- and poultry-processing facilities impacted by COVID-19, and the number of workers with COVID-19 in these facilities, including deaths.” The CDC has made those findings public.

The CDC encourages screening and ongoing medical monitoring of workers, as well as adjustable plastic barriers that workers can individually alter; however, it also allows potentially infected people to return to the workplace. “The guidance advises that employers may permit workers who have been exposed to COVID-19 but remain without symptoms to continue to work, provided they adhere to additional safety precautions,” CDC told Yahoo News.

To ensure the continuation of production, the guidance advises employers to prioritize the most critical positions, and to potentially cross-train workers to perform critical duties in order to reduce the total numbers needed.

On April 30, the USDA said that, in addition to CDC oversight, it would establish a federal leadership team to ensure continuity of operations at meat and poultry plants, according to one of the DHS documents reviewed by Yahoo News.

A USDA spokesperson said in an email that President Trump issued an executive order declaring that meat and poultry processors meet newly established criteria under the Defense Production Act. The USDA also said they are directing processing plants to operate in accordance with the CDC and OSHA guidance and requiring establishments to provide written documentation of mitigation plans for review by the USDA-led federal leadership team.

Smithfield and Cargill did not respond to requests for comment about whether they are sending this documentation to the USDA.

Donald Trump
President Trump on Friday. (Samuel Corum/Pool/Getty Images)

Those who follow the industry say the reason meatpacking plants are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 is because of how they are built. Meatpacking plants employ thousands of people to work shoulder to shoulder for 12-hour shifts. Carcasses zoom by as each employee does their part.

“The same thing that made the meat-processing plants so efficient is also what made them so susceptible,” said Chad Hart, a professor of economics at Iowa State University.

“You see a highly stylized, highly efficient process,” Hart said. “We had concentrated folks into large facilities because they are economies of scale. The more you can do in one building, the cheaper it is.”

Not only are workers not able to socially distance, they also are running out of personal protective equipment (PPE), which is critical for food-processing plants. According to the documents reviewed by Yahoo News, PPE remains in short supply.

A May 2 update from FEMA says that the California Department of Food and Agriculture found that more than three-quarters of the counties they surveyed “had trouble fulfilling their PPE needs; many suppliers out of stock.” California said it needed 1.8 million masks, 700,000 face coverings, and 3.8 million gloves, while the Georgia Department of Agriculture “requested staff working in meat- and food-processing facilities placed second only to first responders and health care workers when prioritizing PPE supplies.”

The response to this PPE shortfall has been haphazard. Some states are assisting efforts by providing more PPE and test kits to plants, while others, such as Iowa, are regulating for food safety and worker safety but are not providing assistance. In other states, factories are left to their own devices.

But it isn’t just the lack of PPE and plant shutdowns that affected the supply of meat.

The supply chain is susceptible to bottleneck events such as these, according to Trey Malone, a professor of agriculture, food and resource management at Michigan State University.

“Initially policy makers thought we could shut off some parts of the supply chain and leave others,” he said. “What we’re discovering is that we have a far more interconnected supply chain within food and agriculture than we thought.”

While infection outbreaks at plants were easy to anticipate, one of the unexpected challenges facing meat supply was a shortage of ethanol. With travel at a standstill, gas prices are dropping and the plants producing ethanol, which is used as an essential additive to auto gasoline, are shutting down as a result.

“Gas prices shouldn’t matter for food,” said Malone. “But it matters quite a bit.”

Trey Malone
Trey Malone, an economics professor at Michigan State specializing in food and resource management. (via Twitter)

Meatpacking plants rely on carbon dioxide, a byproduct of ethanol production, both to shock livestock before it is killed and to refrigerate stored meats. Ethanol is also used to create the special feed given to farmers for livestock that encourages rapid weight gain.

Decreasing fuel demand has caused 29 of 45 U.S. ethanol plants to stop production, according to an April 8 DHS document reviewed by Yahoo News. These plants produce 40 percent of U.S. commercial carbon dioxide.

The 40 percent to 50 percent cut in ethanol production is not an essential limiting factor of meat production. Plants are still functioning with what they can get and there are also ways to re-route the chemical from industries that aren’t using as much of it as they used to, like the beer industry.

But it does threaten to become a more serious issue if oil demand continues to decline, warns Dermot Hayes, professor of economics, finance and agribusiness at Iowa State University.

“For now, we aren’t seeing any plants close because of lack of CO2,” he said, but if there is a shortage, there wouldn’t be any other way to shock the livestock.

“The plants are built for a certain system, so we have to use that system.”

As for the workers at the Smithfield plant, they too are facing the limits of the current system when it comes to protecting their health.

The 20-year veteran who spoke to Yahoo News said that prior to the closure, she worked just 2 feet away from the co-worker on her left and just 6 inches from the co-worker on her right. After returning, there were fewer workers, but she did not feel able to maintain 6 feet of distance at all times, though she felt fairly safe with all the gear.

Only two of five lines are currently operating in the department, and she estimated the plant is operating at 50 percent capacity, not because the company is restricting the number of workers, but because so many people are infected or unable to come to work.

The company is pushing employees to return, she said, including a friend of hers whose son tested positive for the virus.

“I don’t feel that the company cares about those who do go to work or is trying to stop the spread,” she said.


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