Karol Swan and Jordan Swan have a farm near York, Nebraska. Karol, Jordan’s mother, is retired from a 32-year career with the USDA Meat Grading and Certification Branch, stationed at JBS Swift, Grand Island, Nebraska. She is currently with a farmer/cattle feeder near Columbus, Nebraska. Jordan splits her time between York, Nebraska and Aubrey, Texas, working in the equine industry. She is also in ag land sales with Farmers National.
Has it been OVER THREE months? It seems like an eternity. COVID-19 truly rearranged our lives and created questions about our family, health, jobs– and food. The unintended consequences are still happening.
As things are opening up here in Nebraska, and our store shelves are beginning to look as they did prior to the pandemic. We took for granted the days of shopping, on-line orders with overnight delivery and store shelves ALWAYS fully stocked. Then suddenly, empty! We’ve been grocery shopping when the pickings were slim. We had heard about the shelves being cleaned out of toilet paper. Then we saw the meat counter EMPTY. I just wanted some chicken breasts.
Probably 99% of us have NEVER experienced this in America. We have always known an abundant, available, safe and relatively inexpensive food supply. One virus upset the food chain’s “apple cart.” Will it happen again? Who knows? We would like to help give you some information, insight and answers concerning the availability and safety of our food supply. The news reporters were reporting the shortages and the concern of consumers. The explanation as to why there was a shortage and solutions in place to help solve the problem were under-reported.
This was not a supply problem, but a logistics problem. COVID-19 brought to light how fine-tuned our nation is at processing and moving product. It also proved how important the people are who make it happen.
So, what happened to the meat? America is blessed with an abundant, wholesome and high-quality meat supply. We (Karol and Jordan) are agriculture people; we are also numbers people. So we will try to put this into perspective.
America has a population of over 330 million people. Everyone eats and a majority eat meat. Average consumption is four ounces per day. That means 83 million pounds of meat products are consumed every day. Poultry makes up 42%, pork 25 % and beef 25%. Our national meat production in normal times meets the daily demand.
COVID-19 affected everything beginning mid-March–notably our meat supply. Production at packing plants dropped 50% capacity for many weeks due to the decrease in the workforce and plant closures for cleaning and adding protective equipment. Packing plants tried to balance worker safety, accommodating livestock producers with market-ready animals, and supplying customers.
Nebraska’s six largest beef plants normally process a total of 25,000 head per DAY. The three largest pork plants, process 30,000 per day. So, production was cut by 25% to 50% for six weeks, creating a backlog of thousands of market-ready cattle and pigs. There is about a 20-day lag from slaughter to retail. All facilities were facing worker shortages. Trucks spent hours waiting for product, then hours on the road. We cannot emphasize enough the importance of the workers who stayed on the job in all phases. The supply was based on normal times, so spikes in purchasing and diminishing supply to the retail stores because of the pandemic led to empty shelves.
From another perspective, the sheer volume needed to feed people is staggering. The total population of the New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles metro areas is about 40 million people. Forty million people eating the recommended four to eight ounces of meat per day hypothetically would use the entire daily production of Nebraska beef.
With the backlog of market-ready animals, social media helped connect producers directly to consumers. This is all good and bless those who have worked so hard to accommodate. Local lockers can only process a set number of animals a day, given their staff and equipment. Even in normal times, we need to make an appointment two to three months in advance to get a beef cow processed. Also, there were suggestions for farmers to give them away. That is a good idea, except they still need to be processed. The Nebraska Pork Producers Association quickly organized an effort where pig farmers donated pigs, businesses and individuals contributed to a fund to pay the University of Nebraska’s Loeffel Meat lab for transportation and processing. All the meat is then donated to various Nebraska food banks throughout the state. Some people, many with the tools and skills, were able to process livestock themselves. They cannot sell to the public unless they are USDA inspected, however, but they can have an excellent product for their families.
Can someone get COVID-19 from meat? The CDC says COVID-19 CANNOT grow on food products. To date, there has been no transmission through food or food packaging. Packing plants are USDA-inspected and always have had quality assurance protocols to ensure cleanliness and wholesomeness of meat products. Clean frocks, clean equipment, permitted gloves and now face coverings are a must. Deep cleaning has always taken place. CDC says to continue the food handling recommendations that have been around for years: WASH YOUR HANDS. Keep it cold, keep separate and cook to the recommended temperature.
Can COVID-19 be transferred from humans to livestock, or livestock to humans? Again, the CDC says there has been no evidence of cross-species infection concerning poultry, pigs or cattle. Livestock producers throughout the years have worked with veterinarians to maintain herd health through preventive vaccinations, biosecurity (visitor and new livestock protocol) and constant premises cleaning, to name a few practices. Obviously, health and welfare is the first priority of any producer.
As we see store shelves being restocked and restaurants reopening, we remind readers that American livestock production is a great industry continually evolving and working to keep our ever-growing population fed. It is fair to say that all of us have felt the effects of COVID-19 and are working through it. A look at the USDA Agriculture Marketing Service production statistics shows beef and pork production numbers are consistent with June 2019 and the five-year average. We must emphasize again the extreme importance of all workers in the food supply chain. WE ALL EAT.
You can learn more about how COVID-19 has impacted the food supply by visiting the USDA Agriculture Marketing Service, North American Meat Institute, Center for For Disease Control and the Center For Food Integrity websites.