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Weaknesses in Meatpacking Consolidation Exposed by Hysterical COVID-19 Response


By:  David Deschesne

Fort Fairfield Journal, July 15, 2020


   A temporary COVID-19 closure of a Cargill pork processing plant in Pennsylvania this past April was just one of a long string of similar closures across the country and graphically illustrated the failure of the consolidated meat packing model that has forced itself into the U.S.

   Joel Nash, from reported in April, “After an unspecified number of workers at its Hazleton, Pa., processing plant tested positive for the coronavirus (COVID-19), Cargill announced the facility would temporarily close effective April 7. The case-ready pork and beef plant employs approximately 900 people.”

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   This closure, along with many others from the top 5 meat packers in the U.S. caused unprecedented shortages throughout the Spring of 2020, exposing the weaknesses in that business model.

   While there was plenty of pork, beef and chicken available in the U.S. food supply chain, the processing and distribution of those products was bottlenecked at just a few mega-processors who, over the past forty years, found themselves in a position of dominance in the meat packing market.

   This has forced thousands of private, independently-owned packers to simply close up shop and go out of business over the past four decades, leaving nearly the entire domestic market for beef, pork and poultry in the hands of a few mega producers.

   This model may work well in good times, but it is not designed to readily adapt to hyper-fluid scenarios, such as a nationwide disease outbreak that would shutter their plants for weeks at a time.

   In the 1930’s there was a similar disruption to the economy across the U.S. but the people of that era enjoyed much greater access to independent meat packers in all the little towns and even moderate cities across the U.S.  This division of labor prevented major shortages in the industry in the event one or even several packers were forced to temporarily shut down. 

   The U.S. citizenry was also a more rural and agricultural-familiar society with a vast majority of rural and country-living folks growing and tending large family gardens. 

  Today, there are only a few homesteaders and traditional country-living Amish families who have preserved the knowledge and skill sets for creating, planting, tending and harvesting large scale family gardens and processing their own meat and animal byproducts such as milk, butter and cheese.

   The factory meat model has achieved dominance by forcing most of those family farms and independent shops out of business over the years by maintaining a near monopoly control of the processing and distribution of the U.S. food supply.

    All of the media hype and government hysteria generated by COVID-19 aside, the one good thing that has come out of the pandemic is exposing how fragile and inefficient the monopolistic, factory meat processing model is.

   It could take years to rectify the situation and return to a more robust, spread out system like we used to have because the meat packers have lobbied Congress over the years to create legislation which was cost-prohibitive for small packers to comply with; thus opening the field for those few packers with deep pockets to enjoy access to the entire U.S. meat market with little to no competition to worry about.

    When one or two little processors closed their doors in the past, the field of processors was large enough and spread out enough to take up the slack.  However, today’s environment with only a dozen or so mega facilities serving entire regions of the U.S. with  “just-in-time” delivery to the supermarkets, when one or two of them close their doors - as did this past Spring - the results are immediate and catastrophic to both consumers, who can’t gain access to the meat; and suppliers who find themselves stuck with a massive supply of animals and nowhere to sell them.   In this scenario, there was product available and willing consumers to buy it - but the failure was in the middle - the consolidated meat processing and distribution system prone to systemic failures when placed under any kind of strain.