To Stanch COVID-19 Meat Crisis, Let Small Farmers Sell Meat to Local Grocers

The ability of Americans to buy meat in grocery stores is at risk due to serious supply-chain issues caused by COVID-19.


The ability of Americans to buy meat in grocery stores is at risk due to serious supply-chain issues caused by COVID-19. Though President Donald Trump just issued an executive order last week requiring meat plants to remain open, there are likely too many sick plant workers for the order to prop up the nation's dwindling meat supply.

The nation's small farmers and ranchers stand ready to help address these supply shortages. But unless Congress moves quickly to amend, suspend, or repeal a burdensome and ineffective federal law, red tape will prevent that meat from ever reaching grocers—or you.

Last month, Smithfield, the nation's largest pork processor, announced it was closing its Sioux Falls, South Dakota, plant "indefinitely" due to a massive outbreak of coronavirus among its thousands of plant workers there. That facility had been processing 4 to 5 percent of the pork Americans consume every day. Since then, competitors in several states have also been forced to shutter or reduce output at facilities in several states.

These massive plants, where livestock are slaughtered and broken down into commercial portions, were created to maximize worker output and efficiency. They were not designed with COVID-19 distancing guidelines in mind. Plant employees often work "shoulder-to-shoulder" and at breakneck speeds—processing more than 1,000 pig carcasses an hour, for example.

Even as large meat processors face peril, many small, local farmers and ranchers—including those who raise high-quality, grassfed cattle—report brisk business in direct-to-consumer (on-farm) sales. While those farmers and ranchers would be happy to sell meat to grocery stores—allowing grocers to keep shelves stocked—a decades-old federal law stands in the way.

That law, the Wholesome Meat Act, which Congress passed in 1967, requires all commercially available beef and pork to be slaughtered and processed either in USDA-inspected facilities or in state facilities that enforce processes "equal to" federal rules. The law, which was intended to boost cooperation between the USDA and state governments, applies both to interstate and intrastate sales. Practically, that means a local rancher who wants to sell 100 pounds of ground beef to a local food co-op must follow the same rules as a giant producer that slaughters tens of thousands of hogs or head of cattle each day and then ships their meat to states across the country. It also means that local rancher who wants to sell meat through commercial channels often must bear the expense of sending her livestock hundreds of miles away—even out of state—to be slaughtered.

With regulatory and cost burdens so high, many farmers and ranchers instead choose to utilize much smaller, local "custom" slaughter facilities and abattoirs outside the USDA inspection regime. Those that do so may only sell an interest in a live animal, which forecloses on the option to sell much smaller portions—such as steaks—to grocers and others.

The Wholesome Meat Act and the 1906 law it amended—the Federal Meat Inspection Act—have been blamed for food-safety issues and massive consolidation in the industry, with Smithfield, Cargill, JBS, and Tyson now controlling most of the nation's meat supply; large producers have cornered more than 80 percent of the nation's beef market and more than 70 percent of the pork market.

That enormous meat supply is now at risk. But a fix is at hand—if Washington acts fast.

As we see it, this is one problem—that meat processed in custom slaughterhouses cannot be sold in intrastate commerce—with three distinct solutions. First, Congress could move immediately to suspend, amend, or repeal portions of the Wholesome Meat Act to allow intrastate commercial sales of meat processed in custom slaughter facilities and abattoirs according to the laws of each respective state. Second, Congress could finally pass the PRIME Act, a bipartisan bill that would have a similar impact. Third, the USDA may be able to suspend enforcement temporarily of the Wholesome Meat Act's provisions pertaining to the mandatory inspection of intrastate meat processing and sales. Other agencies have suspended enforcing rules due to COVID-19. For example, in March, the EPA announced it would suspend enforcement of some pollution regulations due to the pandemic. (Suspending enforcement of rules doesn't require a pandemic. Years earlier, the Obama administration also suspended enforcement of selective rules.)

Choosing any of these three approaches would allow that local rancher to sell her ranch's ground beef to her local grocer, co-op, or restaurant, along with supplying meat at farmers markets, via online sales, and through other commercial avenues. On the other hand, choosing to maintain the status quo will harm consumers, smaller ranchers, and grocers while further decimating the nation's meat supply.

The choice is clear. The integrity of our food supply demands quick action.

NEXT: Joe Biden Won the Democratic Primary. But Bernie Sanders Won the Party. 

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  1. “The ability of Americans to buy meat in grocery stores is at risk due to serious supply-chain issues caused by COVID-19.”

    Uh, guys, the issues are caused by state and local governments, not by any virus.

    1. Uh, the virus had something to do with all those meat workers getting sick

      1. I’m not sure if they couldn’t work because they were sick or they just tested positive .

        1. Even if it was the latter, it would be justified.

        2. <2% suffered something distinguishable from the flu.
          <5% were actually sick enough to miss work.
          <10% tested positive.
          The rest were sent home with pay.

          1. ok, so send the < 10% that tested positive home with the unemployment insurance + $600/week plan. Or does that make the company look evil for laying off sick workers? Use the payroll protection plan instead? Which bailout lets companies stay open without screwing workers who get sick?

            1. “ok, so send the < 10% that tested positive home with the unemployment insurance + $600/week plan."

              Mind your own business and let the packing plants stay open.

            2. Which bailout lets companies stay open without screwing workers who get sick?

              The one that keeps as many restaurants as possible open as much as possible. Otherwise, keeping meat packing plants running to supply a volume that isn’t demanded is just going to screw over business owners and employees elsewhere.

              It’s hilarious the morons who parrot “We’re all in this together.” and will quote “I, Pencil” in lectures about globalism and global supply chains will act like a meat packing plant, or all of them, can be shut down and/or started up without any ancillary effects.

              1. The demand is there the supply is what is hurting. And the supply is only hurting because of lack of processing. Did you read the story?

                1. Whether through the various government interventions due to COVID or via the Wholesome Meat Act and the big four, I feel confident, and I think you do to, that both demand and supply are being artificially manipulated, just supply more directly than demand.

                  I felt Sevo’s post adequately covered the “don’t fuck with supply” side of the equation. My point was that if you really want to make sure a meat packer has a job to come back to after missing work due to COVID or a place to ply his wares individually, go buy beef. Buying more of their product is the surest way to tell them that they should keep the people they’ve hired, hired and hire more if possible. “How do we subsidize employment fairly in lockdown?” is the wrong question.

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    2. Has to do with the consolidation of meat processing plants, resulting in a rigid, inflexible, monolithic distribution system, what the soviets called centralization. When one meat processing plant was infected with salmanila, they have to throw away millions of pound of spoiled beef. That’s a lot of wasted cattle.
      Consolidation, we were told, was supposed to increase efficiency, thereby lowering prices. All it did was eliminate competition, lowered worker’s wages, increased prices and channeled massive profits into fewer hands. Centralization did not work in the Soviet Union and as we can see, does not work here either.
      All an enemy has to do is bomb a few food processing plants to starve the nation into submission. It is akin to having all your manufacturing in one foreign nation, like communist China. Pretty stupid.

  2. Although I agree we should eliminate regulations whenever possible I don’t think the working conditions were the cause. If you have ever seen the workers in these plants they are already dressed for isolation, gowns, masks, gloves etc. It is more likely they picked it up outside the plants and we only know about the infections because of the mandatory testing going on at the plant (I work for a hospital and we are not doing mandatory testing just asking the questions…have you had a fever, have you traveled etc.). If you look at the employee makeup they are mostly immigrants working the line, probably living communally in one house.

    1. Fair analysis.

  3. Sounds like the perfect case for automation.

    1. Actually not.

      On the one hand, slaughterhouses are simply assembly plants run in reverse. Standard manufacturing software can support their operations with only a little modification. On the other hand, you’re dealing with highly variable inputs – something automation does not handle well. You can just program the robot arm to move up 12.5 degrees and rotate right 42.8 degrees. You need sensors that can assess and adapt to actual sizes, joint locations, etc.

      Making it worse, to produce anything more sophisticated than ground beef, you also need embedded judgement based on the quality of the meat as it is exposed. Some animals will be more profitable dressed out one way, other animals will be better with a different set of cuts. And you usually can’t make that full determination until you’re into the animal.

      Even with the current labor conditions, a trained human is a much, much cheaper butcher than automation.

      1. “a trained human is a much, much cheaper butcher than automation.”

        We need to train humans to demand robot butchered meat.

        1. The poster above just told you why it wouldn’t work, at least not with current technology. Yet you just show your idiocy by your post that completely kisses the point. It isn’t consumer demand, it is the fact that every animal is different and trying to program a robot to adapt is virtually impossible. Even in a well managed pen, you can have 100+ pound differences on both sides of the average. A Charolais will have a different frame than a Angus, which will be different than a Tarentaise, which will be different than a Hereford. And don’t even mention a good portion of beef animals are hybrids of two or more species. Pork is similar. Breed differences and each individual animal differences. My heifers and cows this year were all bred by the same bull and all came out of the same herd. I had calf weights from 35 pounds to 114 pounds. They were fed the same ration all winter, and pastured in the same pasture all fall. Despite all this the range in weights was 79 pounds. And the difference between the average, 69 pounds was 34 pounds on the lower end and 35 pounds on the upper end. None actually weighed the average, with the majority above the average. You continue to display your absolute lack of knowledge on a very complicated subject. And every time you do you just show how uninformed you are. You probably think that there is no difference between a Hereford and a Holstein and think all cows are black and white.

          1. “You probably think that there is no difference between a Hereford and a Holstein and think all cows are black and white.”

            If you want to convince people that all cows are black or white, fish farmed salmon is superior to wild salmon, or robot butchers are better than humans, the advertising industry is there to help you.

            1. Didn’t bother reading your bullshit.
              Fuck off; no one cares about your bullshit or your blog. Just fuck off.

            2. Whoosh, that is the point going completely over your head once again. What is evident is that it is apparent to everyone that you missed the point, even to you, so you try hackney sarcasm.

              1. You missed my point. I ignored yours which was not relevant.

                1. No you had no point. I pointed out why your supposed point was imbecilic and ignorant. Your choosing to ignore it is fully demonstrative of your inability to understand your own shortcomings.

                2. I’ll make it simple for you. The input (carcasses) are to variable for current software and robots to work Robots work best when the product they are working on is uniform. That will never happen with living creatures. Even with genetic engineering the carcass is a phenotype, i.e. a combination of genetic and environmental impacts, as well as randomness. You can control genetics to a degree but not the other two. A 1500 pound Charolais steer is not going to cut the same as a 1300 Angus steer, ever. So you point is moot. It is ignorant and the fact that you keep making it after two people have pointed out why it wouldn’t work in several posts shows a total lack of reasoning skills on your part.

                  1. “No you had no point.”

                    “So you point is moot.”

                    You seem confused. Read my original post again. That might help. I will restate the idea in other words which also might help: It’s easier to train consumer’s taste and preference (through advertising and propaganda) than it is to butcher cattle properly with robots.

                    I don’t disagree with your notes on the difference between cattle breeds and colours, it’s just not relevant to the point I was making.

                    1. It is not a matter of consumer choice, it is a lack of processing. We have enough calves and fattened steers to slaughter just no place to slaughter them. That is the whole point.

                    2. “That is the whole point.”

                      It’s not my point. I’ve already asked you to re read my original comment, and subsequent ones too. It’s not a difficult idea I’m adumbrating here: The future is gay robots on fire.

            3. The giant steak restaurant chain Ruth Chris that had the gall to take millions in small business aid, is not out of character. To show their true colors, they actually advertised their steaks coming from quality corn fed steers as if it were a plus. As we know, cows do not eat corn, they eat hay. Corn is not their natural food. However, they are forced to eat it, because big corporate farming is more concerned with profit. Since corn is subsidized and much cheaper then hay, they force cows to eat corn. However it produces salmonella bacteria in their stomachs and muscles that can kill people who eat the meat. This is the reason why they are fed antibiotics. They are also given steroids to plump them up and get them to market faster than in the old days.
              Ad companies will take a negative and spin it into a positive. Hershey’s recently came out with air filled chocolate. While they are cheating you by giving less chocolate and selling you air, they want you to feel good about getting shafted, they even went as far as unashamedly calling it Hershey’s Air Delight. So yes the corporate world does believe we are a bunch of fools to be easily swindled.

              1. Bullshit cows don’t eat corn and have to be forced to eat it. If you give a cow a choice between hay and corn, they’ll eat the corn. As for what they eat on the range, they will also eat grains when given the chance. And as for finishing steers (not cows btw) they are fed a combination of grains, legumes, hay and straw.
                Also, corn doesn’t cause salmonella. The antibiotics they are given are ionophores which reduce the production of lactic acid and promotes proprianic acid. This buffers rumen pH. Again, someone talking about stuff they don’t even understand.

  4. Who normally buys the meat from the local slaughterhouses?

    1. Almost nobody normally buys meat from the local slaughterhouses. But then again, Wendy’s doesn’t normally run out of hamburgers. There’s a new normal these days, some parts are better maintained than others.

      1. But they have local slaughterhouses. That are running an operation.

        Where does that meat go?

        1. Generally speaking people purchase it for special occasions.

          1. It is currently only a tiny portion of the market.

    2. No one does because no one can. The guy down the street raises sheep, but has to send them up out of state for slaughter (or at least butchering) and then everything comes back frozen.

      As a consumer, my response is “why bother”? I can get decent frozen lamb at store I go to on a weekly basis.

    3. Depends on the time of the year. During hunting season it is the hunter who killed the deer or other game animal. Early winter it is the person who bought the hog from the farmer.

      Local, custom processing operations process many different food animals and produce specific cuts of meat including sausage.

  5. It’s May 9, more than halfway through the spring, and it’s not even 40 degrees outside.

    Where the hell is my “global warming”?? I want my “global warming”!

    1. I almost felt like turning on the heat to knock off the chill yesterday, this morning I’m wearing a sweatshirt and the heat is running. 38 degrees on the back porch this morning and they’ve got a frost advisory out for the area. Supposed to be up in the 80’s next week.

    2. If it’s colder than normal that’s just local standard weather, When it’s anything above normal then it’s CLIMATE CHANGE!

    3. Screw that cold weather crap. Move to Arizona

  6. The state rules can’t be that bad. Here in socialist hellhole NY our local farmers have had their meat in the grocery stores for many years.

  7. Perhaps it depends whether the state cares about small farmers or only big corporate donors.

    1. Broadly speaking one of the biggest contributors recently to slaughter consolidation has been regulations passed supposedly to help the little guy. Surprise, once again the regulations hurt the smaller producers while benefitting the larger guys.

      1. Yeah, that’s about every single piece of legislation “to help small businesses”. But somehow, in an unexpected and completely unpredictable turn of events, it results (as the article notes) in “massive consolidation in the industry”.

        Every. Fucking. Unpredictable. Time.

  8. With the economy such as it is, it is probably not wise to look askance at jobs available. However,

    These massive plants, where livestock are slaughtered and broken down into commercial portions, were created to maximize worker output and efficiency. They were not designed with COVID-19 distancing guidelines in mind. Plant employees often work “shoulder-to-shoulder” and at breakneck speeds—processing more than 1,000 pig carcasses an hour, for example.

    These jobs sound awful, not to mention contributing to the fatass population. I’m ok with eating more potatoes. I fail to muster much sympathy for an industry that has so distorted dietary practices.

    1. Potatoes make you fat, not meat.

    2. Animal fat actually aids in losing weight. Fats, especially animal fats, promote a feeling of fullness and long term satiety. Carbohydrates (sugars and starches) make you feel less full and provide shorter satiety. This is well studied. Eating a diet high in carbohydrates contributes to obesity. Drinking skim milk also has been shown to increase weight, where as multiple studies demonstrate drinking whole milk helps reduce weight. You end up eating less when you eat meat and drink whole milk. Why thevfuck do you think the keto diet and the Adkins diet work? They do work BTW, but overeating protein has risks too.

      1. “Animal fat actually aids in losing weight.”

        I remember reading of a study showing that the feeling of fullness can be overridden in certain contexts, specifically eating while watching TV, somehow that feeling telling us to stop is toned down or absent, meaning that the TV watching eater will simply continue to eat long after the non TV watching counterpart has put down his chopsticks and finished off with some tasty fortune cookies.

        1. Didn’t bother reading your bullshit.
          Fuck off; no one cares about your bullshit or your blog. Just fuck off.

        2. Ever heard of a period? It is generally how people break up sentences. You may want to try it on that totally pointless word salad you just posted.

          1. I’d avoid Proust if that’s your feeling. His sentences are also complex.

            1. Your sentence wasn’t complex. It was at least five different sentences ran together. You call it complexity, everyone else sees it for what it was, a run on sentence.

              1. What’s wrong with run on sentences? Avoid Proust if you find my sentences to long and want them broken up into smaller pieces.

                Here’s one of Proust’s longest sentences, about Charlus, probably my favourite character of the novel:

                “Their honour precarious, their liberty provisional, lasting only until the discovery of their crime; their position unstable, like that of the poet who one day was feasted at every table, applauded in every theatre in London, and on the next was driven from every lodging, unable to find a pillow upon which to lay his head, turning the mill like Samson and saying like him: “The two sexes shall die, each in a place apart!”; excluded even, save on the days of general disaster when the majority rally round the victim as the Jews rallied round Dreyfus, from the sympathy — at times from the society — of their fellows, in whom they inspire only disgust at seeing themselves as they are, portrayed in a mirror which, ceasing to flatter them, accentuates every blemish that they have refused to observe in themselves, and makes them understand that what they have been calling their love (a thing to which, playing upon the word, they have by association annexed all that poetry, painting, music, chivalry, asceticism have contrived to add to love) springs not from an ideal of beauty which they have chosen but from an incurable malady; like the Jews again (save some who will associate only with others of their race and have always on their lips ritual words and consecrated pleasantries), shunning one another, seeking out those who are most directly their opposite, who do not desire their company, pardoning their rebuffs, moved to ecstasy by their condescension; but also brought into the company of their own kind by the ostracism that strikes them, the opprobrium under which they have fallen, having finally been invested, by a persecution similar to that of Israel, with the physical and moral characteristics of a race, sometimes beautiful, often hideous, finding (in spite of all the mockery with which he who, more closely blended with, better assimilated to the opposing race, is relatively, in appearance, the least inverted, heaps upon him who has remained more so) a relief in frequenting the society of their kind, and even some corroboration of their own life, so much so that, while steadfastly denying that they are a race (the name of which is the vilest of insults), those who succeed in concealing the fact that they belong to it they readily unmask, with a view less to injuring them, though they have no scruple about that, than to excusing themselves; and, going in search (as a doctor seeks cases of appendicitis) of cases of inversion in history, taking pleasure in recalling that Socrates was one of themselves, as the Israelites claim that Jesus was one of them, without reflecting that there were no abnormals when homosexuality was the norm, no anti-Christians before Christ, that the disgrace alone makes the crime because it has allowed to survive only those who remained obdurate to every warning, to every example, to every punishment, by virtue of an innate disposition so peculiar that it is more repugnant to other men (even though it may be accompanied by exalted moral qualities) than certain other vices which exclude those qualities, such as theft, cruelty, breach of faith, vices better understood and so more readily excused by the generality of men; forming a freemasonry far more extensive, more powerful and less suspected than that of the Lodges, for it rests upon an identity of tastes, needs, habits, dangers, apprenticeship, knowledge, traffic, glossary, and one in which the members themselves, who intend not to know one another, recognise one another immediately by natural or conventional, involuntary or deliberate signs which indicate one of his congeners to the beggar in the street, in the great nobleman whose carriage door he is shutting, to the father in the suitor for his daughter’s hand, to him who has sought healing, absolution, defence, in the doctor, the priest, the barrister to whom he has had recourse; all of them obliged to protect their own secret but having their part in a secret shared with the others, which the rest of humanity does not suspect and which means that to them the most wildly improbable tales of adventure seem true, for in this romantic, anachronistic life the ambassador is a bosom friend of the felon, the prince, with a certain independence of action with which his aristocratic breeding has furnished him, and which the trembling little cit would lack, on leaving the duchess’s party goes off to confer in private with the hooligan; a reprobate part of the human whole, but an important part, suspected where it does not exist, flaunting itself, insolent and unpunished, where its existence is never guessed; numbering its adherents everywhere, among the people, in the army, in the church, in the prison, on the throne; living, in short, at least to a great extent, in a playful and perilous intimacy with the men of the other race, provoking them, playing with them by speaking of its vice as of something alien to it; a game that is rendered easy by the blindness or duplicity of the others, a game that may be kept up for years until the day of the scandal, on which these lion-tamers are devoured; until then, obliged to make a secret of their lives, to turn away their eyes from the things on which they would naturally fasten them, to fasten them upon those from which they would naturally turn away, to change the gender of many of the words in their vocabulary, a social constraint, slight in comparison with the inward constraint which their vice, or what is improperly so called, imposes upon them with regard not so much now to others as to themselves, and in such a way that to themselves it does not appear a vice.”

                I remember sometimes reading one of Proust’s long sentences, you come to the end, and instead of seeing a period, you’re confronted with an unexpected question mark instead, forcing you to return to the beginning and start again.

            2. Nothing you write is ever complex. It’s all just bullshit to be bullshit.

              1. By complex I mean sentences with multiple clauses. If you carefully read what I write you will find such complex sentence structure. I don’t mean difficult to understand.

  9. If quick action is demanded we’re screwed.

  10. does anybody think the billionaires that own the meat plants will allow any competition from small operations? they will pay off pols and crush it

    1. It’s been long known they’ve pushed out their smaller competition using intimidation and mob tactics. They’ve been accused of price fixing and manipulating the markets. Most ranchers can’t just sell their meat at market because most ranchers don’t have the ability to process the animals. Once these people are forced to sell out… there’s no just buying back in and getting back into the cattle business. The big three packers are making a huge profit during all this while ranchers are in the red and consumer prices go up.

      1. They pulled the same shit last summer following a packing house fire. The government helped create this monopoly, and the ranchers are paying for it.

        1. Oh absolutely! Cattle prices tanked after that. Prices are even lower than that now and they’re loving it.

  11. Supply and demand is old economics. The inflexibility of the supply chain is more influential.

  12. Absolutely let small farmers sell both to stores and directly to the public.

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