The pork industry is headed toward a pandemic-driven bottleneck this fall that once again threatens to end in widespread killing and discarding of pigs, industry analysts say.
Meatpackers became hotbeds of COVID-19 spread in the spring, forcing several of the country’s largest slaughterhouses to shut down or drastically scale back operations. Left with nowhere to turn their pigs into pork, a spate of news reports predicted that farmers would kill and compost millions of hogs, at a time when panicked shoppers had raided grocery stores and hordes of the newly unemployed turned to food banks for help. Similar chaos rocked the poultry industry and some producers of fresh fruits and vegetables.
No reliable estimate for the number of euthanized hogs exists. But while some hog farmers did resort to culling their herds, they largely managed to limit the scale of destruction. Some sold pigs at cut-rate prices or gave them away to people who had them custom-slaughtered at small processors. Others musical-chaired the animals around different barns to make space for incoming piglets. Most weathered the crisis by putting their pigs on diets that kept them from gaining weight, so they could still run through processing plants designed to handle pigs under about 300 lbs.
Now that the country’s federally inspected processors are back up and running at around 95% capacity, slaughterhouses are trying to work their way through the backlog of around 2 million pigs — easing pressure off an industry once on the verge of systematically gassing and shooting hogs destined for the compost pile, and offering a glimmer of hope for farmers facing the prospect of ruin. With far more pigs than meatpackers can handle, hog farmers are routinely losing money with each pig sold into the food chain, collectively bleeding about $5 billion, according to the National Pork Producers Council.
But processors have only been able to pick up the slack because pork production follows a seasonal pattern, with slower months falling over the summer. As fall approaches, the number of piglets will grow. Slaughtering capacity probably won’t. The result is that the pandemic-caused disaster that the industry avoided through improvisation will once again resurface in a few months’ time.
“They can hold the hogs, but there’s not enough barn space out there. So, in my opinion, we have to return to euthanizing young pigs,” Steve Meyer, an economist with risk management firm Kerns and Associates, told HuffPost. “We have a day of reckoning coming.”
The COVID-19 pandemic upended supply chains for the meat industry as a whole. But some parts of it, like poultry and hogs, were more exposed than others. Beef cattle are usually raised on pasture for about a year before finishing their lives at a feedlot. The overwhelming majority of chickens and pigs raised in the United States, however, spend the entirety of their lives in temperature-controlled barns.
When grown animals can’t move from the barn to the slaughterhouse, that leaves little space for new ones. Feed is one of a livestock farm’s top costs, so for each day a slaughter-age animal remains stuck in the barn, the farmer also loses money.
While no one knows the extent of the spring’s livestock culling, chickens likely bore the brunt of it. But the problems for pigs threaten to drag on for months because of the length of the animal’s life cycle. Meatpackers and farmers decided how many hogs to raise nearly a year ago, before COVID-19 emerged as a new illness.
The piglets that will enter barns this fall come from sows inseminated back in January. At that time, the pork industry was planning for a normal fall bump, as well as high demand from China, whose hog herd remains decimated from an outbreak of African Swine Fever.
The demand hasn’t changed. And slaughterhouse capacity for beef and pork has regained about 95% of its capacity, according to the North American Meat Institute. But it’s unlikely that the plants will make it all the way back to 100%, let alone outpace pre-COVID production — as long as the pandemic continues to plague the country.
To keep meatpackers from becoming hotspots for coronavirus spread, processors have spaced out workers, divided them with plexiglass and staggered tables to keep them from facing one another. All of that results in slower line speeds ― the rate at which animals are killed, gutted and processed into salable cuts.
Plants have recovered capacity by extending existing shifts and running on Saturdays, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents 60% of the pork industry’s meatpacking laborers. To keep capacity up, plants are often forgoing profits from higher-end cuts like boned out loins and hams. Some are chucking less lucrative organ meat instead of packaging it for sale.
But many workers are still unable to get back on the job due to illness or high risk of infection. And even in the best of times, line speed is a point of contention between workers and management. Speeding the pace gets more meat out the door, but also results in more injuries for workers, according to UFCW representative Mark Lauritsen ― especially those caused by repetitive muscle use, like carpal tunnel syndrome.
“There’s no possible way we could run the lines at pre-COVID speeds,” Lauritsen told HuffPost. “It can’t be done.”
As the rising number of piglets collides with strained slaughterhouse capacity, progress toward clearing the hog backlog will begin to reverse in about a month, and likely keep growing through October, according to Iowa State University agricultural economist Dermot Hayes. Whether or not meatpackers get hit disproportionately by a second coronavirus wave, hog farmers will once again find themselves struggling with the decision of what to do with a glut of pigs they can’t sell into the food chain.
“It will happen,” Hayes told HuffPost. “It’s almost certain. We will have more pigs than we have the capacity to slaughter.”
Some expressed guarded optimism that hog farmers and meatpackers would call upon the same ingenuity that helped them avoid mass euthanasia in the spring. “The backlog is larger than we’ve ever seen it ― I don’t want to downplay that,” economist Lee Schulz, also at Iowa State University, said. “But I wouldn’t bet against the industry either.”
But it remains unclear when handicapped meatpackers will catch up to a moving target.
One way to measure the future of the country’s pig herd is by the percentage of breeding sows slaughtered, according to Meyer, the analyst with Kernes and Associates. But government data shows a contraction of less than 1.5%, which Meyer thinks is too low. As the backlog grows, he thinks many farmers will have little choice but to cull their herds. The toll will probably fall more heavily on piglets, because farmers have fewer dollars invested in them and they are easier to compost.
“It’s one of those things nobody wants to do, but when your packing plant shuts down you don’t have much choice,” Meyer said. “People who raise pigs are hurting in more ways than financial. These folks aren’t automatons. They’re people like you and me ... We all ought to appreciate that.”