Meat Plant Mayhem… Again?

Jan 14, 2022

At meatpacking plants across the U.S., it’s starting to feel a little too much like deja moo

Who could forget the early COVID outbreaks at meatpacking plants in 2020? Over the first two months of the pandemic, 22 plants closed. One report estimated 59,000 meatpacking employees tested positive: that was nearly 1 in 10 of the workforce.

Now, with surging cases of the Omicron variant, meat plants are starting to see a familiar uptick.

Staff shortages not all that rare: Cargill Inc has been operating at lower capacity at some of their plants, including one in Dodge City, Kansas making do with a “skeleton crew.” To start 2022, out of the 30 counties with the largest beef production plants, COVID cases had increased over a 2-week period in 26 of them. Pork and poultry processors have been affected by post-holiday COVID surges. And the USDA has started replacing and shifting inspectors due to staff shortages.

Where’s the beef? (And pork, and chicken…): USDA estimated beef slaughter numbers last Friday were down 6% from 2021, to 112,000 cattle, while pig slaughter declined about 5%. Perdue Farms is limiting its production of certain poultry products.

While the situation isn’t yet as dire as it was in 2020 (that May, nearly one-fifth of Wendy’s restaurants were out of beef…), potential shortages could loom if meatpacking plants don’t wrangle these outbreaks.

Soundbite: “We are seeing case counts ebb and flow as communities work to manage the spread of the COVID-19, especially the Omicron variant,” noted Cargill, Inc. spokesman Daniel Sullivan

The steaks are high: Demand for meat is still skyrocketing, which makes it even worse timing to have another decline in slaughter capacity. The longer a slowdown continues, the more likely prices will increase. And with inflation already going hog-wild, that’s bad news for consumers.