Meat processing bottleneck causes 'such a waste of food'
There is perhaps no more dramatic example of the destruction plaguing America’s food supply chain than this: Thousands of pigs are rotting on compost heaps as grocers run out of meat.
COVID-19 outbreaks at slaughterhouses have led to the largest pig culling effort the U.S. has ever seen. Hundreds of thousands of animals are already backed up, and CoBank estimates 7 million animals may have to be destroyed this quarter alone. That’s about a billion pounds of meat lost to consumers.
Some farms in Minnesota are even using chippers — reminiscent of the 1996 movie “Fargo” — to grind up carcasses to be spread out for compost. Rendering plants are seeing higher volumes of hogs turned into everything from gelatin to sausage casings.
Behind that enormous waste are thousands of farmers, some of whom are holding on in the hope that slaughterhouses get back up and running before animals get too heavy. Others are cutting their losses and culling herds. Pig “depopulation,” to coin an industry euphemism, highlights the disconnect that’s occurring as the pandemic sickens workers trying to churn out food supplies in mega-plants across the U.S.
“In the agriculture industry, what you prepare for is an animal disease. The thought is never that there’s not going to be a market,” said Michael Crusan, spokesman at the Minnesota Board of Animal Health. As many as 2,000 hogs will be composted a day and laid out in windrows in Nobles County. “We have lots of pig carcasses that we have to effectively compost on the landscape.”
Most meat plants that closed as workers fell ill have reopened after President Donald Trump issued an executive order to do so. But the processing industry is still far from pre-pandemic levels given social-distancing measures and high absenteeism.
The fallout has left meat cases at grocery stores across the U.S. with fewer supplies and driven up prices. Wholesale pork prices in the U.S. have doubled since April.
America’s pork supply chain is designed for “just-in-time manufacturing” as mature hogs are sent from barns to the slaughterhouse, and another group of young pigs take their place within a few days after the facility has been disinfected, said Liz Wagstrom, chief veterinarian with the National Pork Producers Council.
The processing slowdowns left younger pigs with nowhere to go as farmers initially tried to hang on to mature animals for longer. But when pigs reach about 330 pounds (150 kilograms) they are too big for slaughterhouse equipment and the cuts of meat won’t fit into boxes or Styrofoam trays, Wagstrom said.
Farmers have limited options for euthanizing animals and some are setting up containers such as an airtight truck box to pump in carbon dioxide and put the animals to sleep, Wagstrom said. Other methods are less common as they are more traumatic to the worker and the animal. They include gunshot or blunt force trauma to the head.
Landfills are taking animals in some states while shallow graves lined with wood chips are being dug in others.
“It is devastating,” Wagstrom said by phone. “It’s such a tragedy and it’s such a waste of food.”
In Nobles County, Minnesota, hog carcasses are being put into a chipper designed for the timber industry, an idea initially developed to combat an outbreak of African swine fever. The material will then be applied on a wood-chip bed and covered with more wood chips. This will speed up the composting significantly compared with an intact carcass.
Composting makes sense since burials are difficult because of the state’s high water table, while incineration likely is not an option for farmers culling a large number of animals, Beth Thompson, the executive director and state veterinarian of the Minnesota Board of Animal Health.
Darling Ingredients Inc., a Texas-based processor that converts fats into food, feed and fuel, has seen “a good number” of hogs and chickens sent for rendering in recent weeks, Chief Executive Officer Randall Stuewe said on an earnings call last week. Large producers are trying to make room in the hog houses for the next little litter to come along and “it’s a tragic thing for them,” he said.
“At the end of the day, the animal supply chain, at least specifically on the pork side, they’ve got to keep the animals coming,” Stuewe said. “We’re getting anywhere from 30 to 35 loads of hogs a day into our Midwest plants now that are being depopulated.”
Animal welfare groups say the virus has exposed the vulnerabilities in the nation’s food system and the cruel, yet approved, methods to kill animals that are unable to be sent to slaughter.
The industry needs to move away from intensive confinement to give animals more space so producers won’t need to rush to use “ad hoc killing methods” when supply chain disruptions occur, said Josh Balk, vice president of farm animal protection for the Humane Society of the United States.
Farmers are also victims in the current livestock logjam — at least financially and emotionally. The decision to cull could help farms survive, but it takes its toll on producers and on public perceptions of the industry at a time of surging meat prices and shortages at supermarkets.
“Over the course of the past few weeks, we’ve lost our ability to market, which started to create a backlog,” said Mike Boerboom, who raises hogs with his family in Minnesota. “At some point, if we’re unable to market, they are going to hit a point where they’re too large for the supply chain and we’re going to face euthanasia.”