Americans eat a lot of meat. In fact, Americans eat more meat, per person, than almost anywhere else on the globe.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Americans ate a record amount of meat in 2018 - an average of 222.2 pounds per person, surpassing the previous record set in 2014.
That's a lot of meat, but if you plan to go to Wendy’s or McDonald's for a good, old-fashioned burger sometime in the near future, there's a possibility that you won’t be able to get your hands on one.
The United States is in the midst of a major meat shortage due to numerous coronavirus outbreaks in meat processing plants. There have been almost 5,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases reported across 115 meat or poultry processing plants in 19 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Due to this spread of disease, Tyson Foods, the largest meat supplier in the United States, closed two pork processing plants, including its largest in the United States. This is affecting the meat supply, leading to higher prices and scarcity in meat-based products.
The Meat Industry
In the early 19th century, the United States underwent a transformation from a nation of farmers to a nation of factory workers due to the Second Industrial Revolution.
The invention of the railroad and refrigerated cars allowed transportation of meat over long distances. This led to the rise of meatpacking factories and mass production, which meant consumers could purchase meat from grocery stores for a lower price.
This encouraged consolidation of the meatpacking industry by a handful of powerful corporations, which forced small, independent meat processing firms to exit the industry.
Today, four firms handle almost 80 percent of all slaughter facilities: Tyson Foods, JBS, Cargill, and Smithfield Foods. These firms heavily depend on immigrants and people of color for labor, many of whom are women. In the interest of profit, these companies have sought to maximize production while minimizing wages for their employees.
COVID-19 and Meat Processing Plants
Laborers at these meat processing plants work at elbow-to-elbow proximity, making it easy for the virus to spread.
A closure of one plant can ripple down through the meat supply chain across the nation. As many slaughterhouses shut down, farmers are struggling to sell their surplus of animals, and don’t have space or resources to keep these animals alive. As a result, farmers are forced to euthanize their animals. It’s been reported that a large chicken-processing company was forced to kill two million of its birds earlier this month because of worker shortages.
In response to the shortage, President Trump issued an executive order declaring meat processing plants as “critical infrastructure” and ordering businesses to reopen closed plants. Unions are opposed to this order, as this might allow companies to ignore federal safety guidelines and place laborers under the threat of getting infected.
With the coronavirus still wreaking havoc in communities, meat shortages in the U.S may linger as long as the pandemic does. Only time will tell what long-term effects the pandemic will have on Americans' eating habits.
Sources: Wall Street Journal, Poynter, Vox, BBC, USDA, CNBC, Bloomberg, Human Rights Watch, Financial Times