What's going on with the meat industry?
If you’ve been glazing over news headlines it’s been hard to miss some of the meatiest stories. Beef, pork and chicken are snagging front-page stories left and right and our Burger-Eater-In-Chief came to the rescue of large meatpacking plants to ensure the flow of fresh meat continues.
Most people, industry insiders, and outsiders alike, are aware that big packing houses are rife with worker welfare and safety concerns. The consolidation and centralization of meatpackers, whereby four beef packers control an outsize portion of the American market, is necessitating shortages and even animal euthanasia. The pandemic is forcing these concerns into the limelight, and we’d like to take this chance to talk about the why behind some of what’s happening.
When efficiency stands in the way of safety.
Are meat plant workers more susceptible than other essential workers? And if so, why?
Yes and no. All essential workers are exposing themselves to risk at this time, and with personal protective equipment shortages, that risk is compounding. Workers at big meatpackers are largely composed of marginalized people who don’t have a powerful voice and may even risk deportation or loss of employment if they try to speak up.
You may have heard us say (only 1000 or 1001 times!) that 80% of the meat supply in the US is controlled by four companies, JBS, Tyson, Cargill and Marfig. Can you imagine having a voice in the midst of that kind of power? In response to union requests for fair wages in a 1980 interview, the CEO of IBP, which is now owned by Tyson, said, “We’re proud of our workers, but basically we can teach anybody to do a job in our plant in 30 days or less—they don’t need the skills of an old-time butcher who had to know how to cut up a whole carcass.” That sentiment has not changed, keeping the workers silent and stunting their voice.
Meat plant workers tend to come from foreign lands chasing the American dream by doing jobs most Americans refuse to do. They work and live shoulder to shoulder with fear, need, and hope as their main driving forces. Often there are many levels of management between a worker on the line and someone who can make a decision - and the management might not even speak the same language as the line workers. According to an investigation by Mother Jones, safety signs posted in the Greeley, CO JBS plant were only written in English, preventing line workers from even being able to understand what to do.
You can quickly see what happens when intense efficiency and productivity stand above worker welfare. And with a disease as vicious as the coronavirus, any late action is too little too late.
If farmers have animals, what's the problem?
The second topic on our minds is shortages. We’ll keep this simple, although we truly want to go on for a few hundred pages on the meat system in the US. Hit us up if you want to dive painfully in-depth.
Over the past fifty or so years, as the meat industry has consolidated (ahem, 80% by four companies), the drive for efficiency has led to the closures of medium-sized plants in favor of massive plants. The equipment and mechanization to run a big plant is so expensive that the goal is to spread those costs over the greatest amount of finished product. Small plants don’t rely on the automation as much, they rely very heavily on skilled labor (more on that later). Medium-sized plants are rare because, well... why be medium when you could be big? Why pay more when you could pay less?
And now for the why. All of these fewer, but bigger plants rely on abhorrent conditions for their marginalized workforces. The virus ripped through these communities, bringing the few giant efficient plants to their knees. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough smaller plants to make up for the lost production.
With foodservice gone, all meat needs to be packed in retail-ready units, a much more labor-intensive process, thus taking even more time to produce. This reduced production capacity has led to the biggest paradox of the entire meat crisis. Retail meat prices are skyrocketing, while prices received by livestock farmers are plummeting.
One aspect is that all the cuts that come off of a beef animal, pork animal or chicken are the same regardless of what a consumer wants to buy. As consumer demands change, packers are having to ensure that they can meet the demand for the cuts people want to buy, not just the cuts that come off of an animal (we call this balancing, and we have a lot to say about this). And don’t forget the math, 80% goes to four companies, four companies have fewer plants, those fewer plants are crippled. The packers cannot buy the same amount of live animals from farmers so everyone scrambles to collect whatever they can because something is better than nothing.
So...can I still get meat?
There is a silver lining, more people are going directly to their neighboring farms and cooking new cuts of meat. Small plants are operating, given that their secret weapon was their people all alone: their workers have a voice. There are fewer steps between someone making a decision and someone a decision is being made about. Now more than ever, we see the small plants standing up and recognizing their place as essential services-- to keep farmers paid, to keep people fed.
Here at Happy Valley Meat Co., we’ve been able to hold our prices to farmers strong even as commodity prices tumble to new lows. That is hugely thanks to our plant partners turning and cutting cuts smaller, and our new customers learning to cook meat that is different from the grocery store. And all of this allows us to keep paying the farmers we work with to do what they do best: farm.
Perhaps we’ll all look back on 2020 as the referendum on the norm in the meat world, as the shift to decentralized and regional food systems accelerates.
As we look to the future, we want to see more small and medium-sized plants across the country that can see some efficiency, but that never lose sight of the fact that people matter above profits, always.