Empty Shelves, Culled Animals: COVID-19 Intersects with Decades of Industrialized Agriculture
For decades, whistleblowers have told us that it is dangerous when Big Ag puts profits over people. Companies such as Tyson, JBS, and Smithfield, which have historically bulldozed independent businesses to gain control of our meat supply, have built fragile global supply chains in their place. Their model is based on extracting profits and shifting risk onto the workers and farmers who actually feed us. Now in a crisis, we are seeing the pattern continue.
In the last few weeks, the meat industry has experienced a supply chain shock. Workers in poultry and livestock slaughterhouses have fallen ill with Covid-19, causing a processing bottleneck amidst grave concerns for worker health and safety. Outbreaks have resulted in more than 20 major plants shutting down at some point over the past few months.
With nowhere to take their animals for processing, farmers who raise chickens, hogs, and cows are being asked to euthanize entire flocks or herds – and many will face bankruptcy as a result. In the US, big multinational companies dominate the market for nearly all the meat we eat. Companies such as Tyson, JBS and Smithfield are “vertically integrated” – meaning that they own every step in the supply chain, including the hatchery, feed mills, and processing plants. The only link in the chain they do not own is the farm itself. Companies contract with independent farmers to raise animals for them. The contracts are take-it-or-leave-it, and offer a low price-per-pound-gained that barely pays off the cost of constructing the CAFOs.
The corporate contract model has come to dominate the industry. Today 57% of hogs raised in the US are owned and processed by just the top four companies in the industry, and 90% of the 9 billion chickens raised each year are grown under contract.
As processing plants shut down this spring in the wake of Covid-19 outbreaks, farmers within these integrated supply chains have no choice but to follow company instructions. The pigs and chickens they raise legally belong to the company the whole time they are growing up in the farmers’ barns. To maximize efficiency, barns are not designed for long-term care. Farmers often have no way to keep their animals safe and healthy past a certain age and weight. So even as consumers pick over empty shelves in the supermarkets, farmers are being forced to cull animals.
This crisis is bringing to light the severe weaknesses of highly concentrated, top-heavy food supply chains. While corporate, vertically integrated supply chains stumble, independent farms and businesses across the country are stepping up. Smaller, independent processing plants have been able to take more steps to protect their workers. As a result, many farmers who raise chickens, hogs, and cows independently have been able to connect with consumers through direct marketing channels, reaching consumers who are not being served by slow and inflexible supermarket supply chains.
The euthanasia of hundreds of thousands of otherwise healthy animals and the corresponding devastation farmers are experiencing today were a predictable failure. These consequences are a direct result of unmitigated vertical growth in the meat industry and the collapse of the house-of-cards supply chain. Responsibility for this lies at the feet of the businesses that have designed this fragile system. Going forward, we must develop policies and regulations that allow us to rebuild our food system, without the risks that this highly concentrated supply chain poses to farmers, communities, and consumers.