Agriculture has overcome low commodity prices, international tariff spats and consumers' shifting preferences in food. However, a new challenge is taking shape in the industry: a domestic supply shortage of meat.
In response, President Donald Trump on April 28 declared meat processing plants can stay open amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The executive order allows recently shuttered meat plants to be classified as critical infrastructure under the Defense Production Act.
Efforts will be led by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, says Trump, noting meatpackers will continue operations per Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines.
It is hoped that animals moving through the supply chain will help producers, meatpackers and consumers in the short term.
“The food chain is definitely essential, and the workers in the processing plants are very important to us,” says Mary Kelpinski, CEO of the Michigan Pork Producers Association. “Hopefully, this will get the plants up and running and get our pigs moving through again.”
Kelpinski says the U.S. is not running out of pork supply, “but the pigs were starting to back up at our farms.”
“In Michigan, I think we were a couple of weeks away from having to take the extreme measures that they did out West when some of those plants closed,” Kelpinski adds. “Clemens Food Group is still open in Coldwater. A lot of our hogs go down there [for processing].”
Clemens Food Group started operations in September 2017 and processes 10,000 hogs a day.
One way to relieve supply chain pressure is by opening up processing plants, says David Ortega, food and agricultural economist at Michigan State University. He says the U.S. is processing about 30% fewer pigs because of closures and reduced operations.
Before Trump’s announcement, Ortega called the looming shortage of meat “concerning,” saying it would have affected consumer purchases at the grocery store in the weeks ahead.
“It's really hard to tell how long this is going to go on for,” says Ortega, who’s also an associate professor at MSU. “A lot of the plants are closing. Some are closed for about two weeks while they disinfect, and then come back and implement social distancing measures and other protective measures for their workers. If these plants do not get back online, then there will not be processed products moving through the meat supply chain into grocery stores.
“Now, that doesn't mean that you're going to go to the supermarket, and there's going to be an empty shelf or an empty section. It's just that depending on the number of plants that continue to remain closed and reduce capacity, there’s going to be a decrease in that supply.”
While workforce safety is a top priority at farming operations statewide, Michigan Farm Bureau livestock and dairy specialist Ernie Birchmeier says so is a “functioning meat processing industry.”
“Many farmers are facing very tough decisions as livestock destined for harvest and processing have nowhere to go,” Birchmeier says. “The action by President Trump is certainly a step in the right direction. We must be diligent in protecting workers, but we must also keep the food supply chain operating.”
Turkey operation shutters amid COVID-19
One western Michigan operation experiencing difficulties with COVID-19 is Michigan Turkey Producers LLC.
The farmer-owned co-op said it’s temporarily suspended operations at its Chicago Drive facility in Grand Rapids after confirmed cases of COVID-19 among its workforce. According to a statement from CEO Brian Boerigter, the company made the decision “out of an abundance of caution” and to allow for employee testing at the location. The facility closed April 24.
“We have had no reported cases at our Hall Street production facility [in Grand Rapids], and it will continue to operate,” Boerigter told Michigan Farm News. “Our No. 1 core value is the health and safety of our team members. As a result of the growing COVID-19 concerns, along with elevated worker absenteeism, we felt compelled to make the decision to temporarily close, in the best interest of our employees.”
Boerigter says testing of all employees began April 26 and continues now.
“At this time, we have received confirmation of 68 positive tests,” he said. “The majority of these individuals are asymptomatic. We have mandated quarantine and monitoring of all infected associates, as well as implemented contact tracing and quarantined all people who may have come in contact with those who are infected. To date, we have no employees who have required hospitalization.”
Those testing positive for COVID-19 “will shelter in place while we work with the Kent County Health Department and local medical providers to determine a safe return to work for those employees,” Boerigter says.
Michigan Turkey Producers says it’s following CDC and Kent County Health Department guidelines, including implementing measures to help mitigate the spread of the virus. They include, among other items, deep cleaning the plant, monitoring the temperature of people entering the facility, and putting up barriers where social distancing is difficult.
“Our team members will be paid while they’re on leave, and our thoughts are with them during this challenging time,” Boerigter says. “We continue to actively monitor this situation and will continue to respond appropriately.
“By following this path forward, taking care of our employees will allow Michigan Turkey to provide safe and healthy food for the communities and families we serve.”