All of the vulnerabilities of America’s centralized and concentrated meat supply came forth front and center in March of 2020 – a system over 50 years in the making finally broke. Processors were being forced to close down to contain outbreaks among workers, grocery stores began implementing rationing due to product shortage, prices were rising, and there was a whole lot of empty space on shelves.
As positive tests started showing up, meatpackers began shutting down. To provide perspective, these big packing plants have thousands upon thousands of workers (often immigrants, with some plants having 40 languages spoken in them), working shoulder to shoulder. Considering what we know about the meat industry’s substantial consolidation, even one processor shutting down had a massive impact on our food supply.
Two dozen slaughterhouses shutting down temporarily caused a tidal wave of suffering among workers and their families, destroyed farmer’s incomes, created a deeply disruptive bottleneck in the supply chain, and ultimately led to the mass ‘depopulation’ of animals intended for our food supply.
With a large fraction of the processors closed (processing capacity declined as much as 45% in cattle and hog markets), all of a sudden there were herds upon herds of cattle, hogs, and chickens ready for slaughter with nowhere to go. Most cattle spend one third to half of their lives in a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) or a feedlot, while hogs and chicken spend their entire lives in them – packed wall to wall with very little room to spare. Built on efficiency and constantly cycling livestock through, these systems can't exactly pause. And with the processors shut down, the market-ready livestock had nowhere to go. Many livestock producers made the difficult decision to depopulate their livestock inventory. There was simply no other option.
Devastatingly, millions of hogs, chickens, and turkeys were euthanized. Hogs were inhumanely depopulated by the barnful – by cutting off their ventilation in the barns causing them to overheat, by gassing them, or shooting them. It’s estimated that over 10 million hens were culled due to pandemic related slaughterhouse shutdowns. The National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) estimated that: “up to 10,069,000 market hogs will need to be euthanized between late April through September 2020, resulting in severe emotional and financial toll on hog farmers.”
The actual number of euthanizations during Covid hasn't been published. In 2021, farmers were able to apply for reimbursement of 80% of their losses through the USDA from euthanizing. While nothing was published about cattle euthanizations – the losses for the cattle industry has been estimated at 13.6 billion dollars.
The events of 2020 demonstrated just how problematic The Big 4 oligopoly is and how this extreme consolidation and vertical integration puts our food supply at risk. For example, if we had thousands of smaller meat processors across the country with 15-30 employees each, the Covid risk would’ve been much more spread out, causing considerably less impact on the market and animal welfare. In 1967, nearly 10,000 slaughterhouses served farmers across the U.S. Today, over 95 percent of our country’s cattle and hogs are slaughtered at just 60 supersized plants.
Farmers, processors, and consumers were faced with massive hardship throughout the first year of the pandemic. As for Tyson, JBS, Cargill, and National Beef? They were reaping record profits. JBS for example, reported $51 billion in revenue for 2020 – a 32% rise compared with the previous year. The Big 4 were beautifully positioned to take advantage of the chaos that ensued in 2020. Coincidence?
In April 2020, John Tyson, Chairman of the Board at Tyson Foods, made national news by taking out a full-page ad in The New York Times and The Washington Post warning Americans that the food supply chain was breaking. The letter detailed the unique set of challenges Tyson was facing in an effort to keep their 10,000 employees safe amidst the pandemic.
As the meat giant was forced to close their doors, Tyson stated, “This means one thing – the food supply chain is vulnerable. As pork, beef and chicken plants are being forced to close, even for short periods of time, millions of pounds of meat will disappear from the supply chain.”
He went on to say, “In addition to meat shortages, this is a serious food waste issue. Farmers across the nation simply will not have anywhere to sell their livestock to be processed, when they could have fed the nation. Millions of animals – chickens, pigs and cattle – will be depopulated because of the closure of our processing facilities. The food supply chain is breaking.”
Some news outlets disagreed with Tyson’s words, with Forbes flatout stating “he is wrong” and blaming him for setting off another nationwide panic buying spree. Most farmers and ranchers took this warning very seriously, as they reeled from the effects of 2020 themselves. Knowing how few meatpackers and processors the country is run by, when the second largest company pens a letter like this and releases it wide-scale, we were inclined to take it very seriously.
Absolutely devastating and inhumane losses occurred due to the shutdowns in early 2020. While The Big 4 can’t be fully held accountable for the effects of a worldwide pandemic, some are now being accused of anti-competitive actions. From strategically closing processing plants to forcing feedlots to abide by overly restrictive buying agreements – ultimately forcing ranchers to take record low prices for their cattle, despite an era of rising beef prices.