Foodprints for the Future

Coronavirus shutters meat plants, exposing vulnerability of Big Meat

Environmentalists have argued for reducing our meat consumption for years. Now, we may not have a choice.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced meat-processing plants to close. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report last week, citing nearly 5,000 cases of COVID-19 and at least 20 deaths in meat-processing facilities across the country. 

Both beef and pork production are down 35% from a year ago at this time, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, causing nationwide shortages: Grocery stores are now capping meat purchases, and fast-food joints are running out of hamburgers

Because of their close quarters, meat-processing facilities are extremely susceptible to outbreaks. The CDC report cited the “difficulties with workplace physical distancing and hygiene and crowded living and transportation conditions” in plants as reasons for theses cases.

Last month, that difficulty played out at a large scale when the New York Times reported on the country’s largest hot spot at the time: A South Dakota meat-processing plant, responsible for 44 percent of the state’s COVID-19 cases. 

The U.S. government deemed the meat industry an essential business and thus ordered plants to remain open during the pandemic. But that order can’t prevent plants from closing due to health and safety concerns. And because of the nature of Big Meat in the U.S., these closures are sending ripples through the country, particularly damaging the supply chain.

“The food supply chain is vulnerable,” wrote John Tyson, CEO of Tyson Foods, last month. “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.”

Tyson Foods exemplifies one of the biggest problems of the meat industry in a pandemic: its industrial scale. Tyson is the country’s largest meat company. One of the facilities it shuttered recently processes 5% of all the pork in the country. In fact, just 15 plants process nearly 60% of all pork in the U.S

So, in other words, when one plant goes down, it affects a whole bunch of people. 

“Breakdowns in the food supply chain could have significant economic impacts for both consumers and agricultural producers,” U.S. senators wrote in a letter last month to Vice President Mike Pence. “It is also imperative that precautions are taken to ensure the stability and safety of our food supply.”

The CDC cited several solutions in meat-processing plants, which have had varying success: adjusting start and stop times of shifts and breaks; adding outdoor break areas; installing physical barriers between workers; screening workers for temperature and symptoms.

But because of the systematic and structural nature of meat processing, less meat may be the new normal, at least for now. 

Fortunately, plenty of resources exist for people to adopt a plant-based diet. And since animal agriculture accounts for a large chunk of global greenhouse gas emissions, these adaptations are also good steps toward a more sustainable lifestyle.

Below are some of our favorite meat-free recipes:

Once the pandemic passes, consider keeping these recipes in your weekly diet. Eating a plant-based diet, after all, is one of the most immediate ways to reduce your carbon footprint. Learn more at our campaign Foodprints for the Future.