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Study: Public had fewer fears than leaders did of meat shortages

In April 2020, when outbreaks of COVID-19 among slaughterhouse workers slowed U.S. meat production, the chairman of Tyson Foods said in full-page advertisements, “The supply chain is breaking.” Two days later, President Trump signed an executive order to keep processing plants open during the pandemic.

In retrospect, the meat supply chain was strained, but not broken, and production recovered quickly, said a team of economists in the journal Meat Science. And Americans were not as worried about meat availability as was hypothesized at the time, judging by an analysis of comments on social media.

“Therefore, proposals aimed at addressing the structure of the meat supply chain in the name of the pandemic need to be carefully vetted and held up against the reality of what happened and the perception created through online media,” concluded the economists from Purdue and Oklahoma State universities.

The Biden administration is putting hundreds of millions of dollars into expanding meat-processing capacity and helping new packers enter the industry. And some farm and cattle groups say more competition is needed to assure fair prices to ranchers because of the dominance of four processors in meatpacking. Livestock prices fell while retail meat prices climbed during the spring 2020 slowdown in meat production, leading to charges that meatpackers collected windfall revenues.

Meat production in April and May 2020 was 10% smaller than in the same months in 2019 because some of the largest packing plants closed temporarily or slowed production because of COVID-19 among the workforce. “But there was not a shortage of meat,” said the economists. Production rebounded by the first week of June 2020. Some of the shortfall in production was offset by taking meat out of refrigerated storage.

“Meat, although perhaps not exactly the the specific product the consumer wanted, was still readily available,” they said.

As to public sentiment, “total public interest, measured by the percent of total online mentions of COVID-19 relative to total mentions of meat overall, was relatively small,” wrote economists Nicole Widmer, Courtney Bir, and Nathanael Thompson and doctoral student Eugene Nuworsu. More attention was given to the “chicken sandwich wars” of August 2019 and Thanksgiving turkeys in 2019 and 2020.

“Yet a number of high-ranking meat industry leaders, along with major journalistic outlets and some academic or industry groups, warned of ‘impending doom’ in the meat industry which never materialized.”

In gauging public interest about COVID-19 and meat supplies, the researchers developed a list of 53 primary search terms that included beef, chicken, lamb, turkey, poultry, steak, and ham as well as some specific cuts of meat. They also used 250 exclusionary terms to filter out colloquialisms, sports teams, and online games that mention animals or meat.

The study is available here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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