According to The Washington Post, coronavirus outbreaks at meatpacking plants across the United States have forced temporary closures and resulted in a backlog of hundreds of thousands of animals that were ready to be slaughtered weeks ago but increasingly have nowhere to go.
Some hog farmers are putting their animals on a diet so they don’t get too big to be processed, while others are being forced to euthanize their pigs and dispose of their bodies instead of having them processed for food.
The National Pork Producers Council has estimated as many as 10 million hogs will be euthanized [pdf] by the end of the summer because of coronavirus-related disruptions in meat processing. In Minnesota, the situation is already dire—with an average of 2,000 pigs a day being killed, according to the state agriculture department. About 90,000 pigs have been euthanized in the state in the past six weeks.
In Iowa, the top pork-producing state in the country, responsible for about a third of the market, farmers had euthanized an estimated 5,000 hogs as of May 7, according to state officials, with numbers expected to increase in coming weeks.
At the same time, small-scale slaughterhouses are being bombarded by farmers seeking a place to bring their animals and customers trying to get their hands on meat that they can’t find in U.S. supermarkets. According to Reuters, with the large meat plants closed or running at reduced capacity, there are not enough places to slaughter hundreds of thousands of cattle and pigs, and store shelves have little or no meat.
Small-scale slaughterhouses account for a minuscule part of the market: Around 80% of U.S. beef is produced by four large companies. Some 1% of American hogs or less are processed at small-scale meat lockers, economists say. While a large plant may be able to slaughter 4,500 cattle each day, small processors are only able to process approximately 20 a week.
In addition, panic buying by consumers has resulted in a lot of these small processors butchering meat for the farmers to sell directly to consumers, bypassing the retail stores completely. While they are selling out of stock every week, they are still encountering a choke point because they can’t get it all processed. The backlog is too large, and soon even more farmers will be forced to make some tough decisions as to what to do with their animals.