Food Chain and Waste: influence of a pandemic

Food Chain and Waste: influence of a pandemic

Tyson Foods (TSN) is warning that “millions of pounds of meat” will disappear from the supply chain as the coronavirus pandemic pushes food processing plants to close, leading to product shortages in grocery stores across the country.

“The food supply chain is breaking,” wrote board chairman John Tyson in a full-page advertisement published Sunday in The New York Times, Washington Post and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. US farmers don’t have anywhere to sell their livestock, he said, adding that “millions of animals — chickens, pigs and cattle — will be depopulated because of the closure of our processing facilities.”

Our consumption for meat products is astronomical. For years, major meat processors have been ruthlessly tamping down on costs and increasing efficiencies. That has contributed to dangerous working conditions even before the coronavirus hit. “There are many serious safety and health hazards in the meat packing industry,” the Occupational Safety and Health Administration says on its website. “These hazards include exposure to high noise levels, dangerous equipment, slippery floors, musculoskeletal disorders, and hazardous chemicals,” among others, contributing  to dangerous working conditions even before the coronavirus hit.

Over the years, meat processing companies have been speeding up production lines to process more meat in each facility, explained Ben Lilliston, interim co-executive director at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.  Meat factory employees are closely involved with the meat itself. Faster lines require more workers who have to stand closer together, whereby the increased risk of coronavirus transmission

Some factory workers don’t interact with the food they make directly. Instead, they may operate machinery that packages, shapes or produces food. Many are responsible for a specific job along an assembly line, like removing bone or muscle as meat passes by on a conveyor belt, but still work in a close environment.

There’s “no question” that people who work in meat processing facilities are stationed more closely together than most workers at other food manufacturers, said Steve Meyer, an economist with commodity firm Kerns and Associates. He estimated that many stand about three or four feet apart from each other while working, as assembly line style production is not designed for social distancing and an inescapable reality of the industry.  Trying to space people out now presents a host of business problems. With fewer people along an assembly line, the conveyor belts would have to slow down. That could mean less output — which could lead to shortages or more expensive meat for consumers. The backlog would also be devastating for livestock farmers, who are already struggling to sell their meat because of the plant closures.

And to make matter worst, in Wisconsin and Ohio, farmers are dumping thousands of gallons of fresh milk into lagoons and manure pits. The nation’s largest dairy cooperative, Dairy Farmers of America, estimates that farmers are dumping as many as 3.7 million gallons of milk each day. The amount of waste is staggering.

Consolidation in the industry has made it difficult for those producers to find smaller, local processors to handle their meat.  Outsourcing certain tasks to reduce the number of employees needed is also not a feasible solution.  Grocery stores and big box retailers are not equipped to butcher meat themselves. And human labor is still the least costly way to process meat, said University of Wisconsin’s Sindelar. Some U.S. meat plants have started relying more on machines and automation, but it’s unlikely that a larger shift towards mechanized meat processing will occur. Even plants that have started to use robots still generally rely on people to slaughter animals and break them apart. It’s “not feasible” to replace the vast number of people who slaughter and harvest animals with machines, Sindelar said.

Many employees are sick causing disruption in the meat packing industry, but the consequences for the farmers and animals are immeasurable. At least two million animals have already reportedly been culled on farm, and that number is expected to rise. Iowa – the biggest pig producing state in the US – have warned that producers could be forced to kill 700,000 pigs a week due to plants slowdowns or closures. The combination of restaurant and slaughterhouse suspensions meant pigs “are backing up on farms with nowhere to go, leaving farmers with tragic choices to make because hog farmers have nowhere to move their hogs.”  Euthanasia  of any animals is always a devastating last resort for any farmer. However, when farmers cannot send pigs to market, barns can become overcrowded, limiting access to food and water and present significant animal welfare challenges, so the only option is to depopulate.

Chicken have a very short live because they are over fed and over grown. They are meant to be slaughtered around 45 days, and sent to meat packing plants. Millions of chicken have already been depopulated and there will be more every week. And if it is not enough to slaughter 100 of thousands of chicken, a single chicken processing plant is smashing 750,000 unhatched eggs every week.

With the meat food chain being disrupted, the vegetable food chain is getting through its own difficulty.  An Idaho farmer has dug huge ditches to bury 1 million pounds of onions. And in South Florida, a region that supplies much of the Eastern half of the United States with produce, tractors are crisscrossing bean and cabbage fields, plowing perfectly ripe vegetables back into the soil.

This time last year, half of Paul Allen’s green bean and cabbage crops at RC Hatton farms in Pahokee, Florida, would have been destined for food service. Now he’s plowing 5m to 6m pounds of vegetables back into his fields. “Retail cannot absorb it, We’re working with the state to try to get it to charities. But quite frankly, a lot of those avenues are full,” said Paul Allen, a Florida vegetable grower. “They can’t absorb it all, no way. Whatever else you’ve got just goes unharvested and you’ve got to mulch it back into the ground.” Allen is far from alone. He laments the circumstances his tomato-growing friends find themselves in, with 80% or more of their crops previously bound for food service.

The closing of restaurants, hotels and schools has left some farmers with no buyers for more than half their crops. And even as retailers see spikes in food sales to Americans who are now eating nearly every meal at home, the increases are not enough to absorb all of the perishable food that was planted weeks ago and intended for schools and businesses. Many farmers say they have donated part of the surplus to food banks and Meals on Wheels programs, which have been overwhelmed with demand. But there is only so much perishable food that charities with limited numbers of refrigerators and volunteers can absorb. The costs of harvesting, processing, preparing and packaging food for retail as opposed to wholesale is a new experience  and then transporting produce and milk to food banks or other areas of need  put further financial strain on farms that have seen half their paying customers disappear. Exporting much of the excess food to World Food Program and NGO’s, is not feasible either, despite so many countries experiencing famines, such as Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria and South Soudan.

Using the U.S. Federal Poverty Guidelines and the Department of Health and Human Services, the poverty, 38 millions people are poor. More than 41 million Americans face hunger, including nearly 13 million children. Some of the groups experiencing the highest rates of food insecurity include households with children led by single women and people living below the poverty level. It is therefore really hard to imagine that so much food, meat and vegetables, is wasted with so many people in need, including our children who go to school hungry.