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USDA finds big pork plants recovered quickly from COVID-19

Outbreaks of COVID-19 at meatpacking plants slashed U.S. hog slaughter rates by 36% in late April 2020, but a USDA report found that “regions with large pork processing plants recovered in a couple of months” – similar to regions with small plants.

Critics of the highly concentrated meat industry have called for construction of more, and smaller, packing plants as a way to blunt the impact of disasters and speed the recovery, but the report by the Economic Research Service said regions with smaller plants did not recover faster, “revealing that physical capacity might not be the major characteristic” of resiliency.

“We find different effects of COVID-19 across regions. Some regions experienced a prolonged decline in hog slaughter compared with 2019 while sharp declines in other regions only lasted a few weeks,” said the four USDA economists who authored the report. “Further research is necessary to quantify the relationship between plant characteristics and changes in slaughter volumes.”

At one point, they cautioned that their assessment was “more demonstrative than definitive.”

The report looked at hog slaughter by region. Regions 5 and 7, stretching across the Midwest from Ohio into Kansas and Nebraska in the Plains, accounted for three-quarters of hog processing and rebounded by June from weekly declines of 30% 40% in April and May.

Region 2, New Jersey and New York state, never regained its pace during 2020. Region 9, composed of Arizona, California, Hawaii, and Nevada, had a large increase in production but, like Region 2, handled only a sliver of hog processing.

For its analysis, the ERS defined resiliency as a region’s ability in 2020 to match or surpass slaughter totals for 2019, before the pandemic. It divided the country into regions based on the USDA meat safety agency’s map and used weekly slaughter data collected by USDA’s statistical service. Eight of the 10 regions slaughtered more hogs in 2020 than in 2019, “suggesting the industry suffered at the beginning of the pandemic but adjusted production and at least partially recovered,” said the report.

“This adjustment was achieved through a variety of strategies, including higher Saturday slaughter levels, worker wage bonuses, increased COVID-19 testing, the provisioning of personal protective equipment, increased worker spacing, the declaration of meat and poultry processing as essential infrastructure to help ensure continued operations, and the simplification of processing, including capturing less variety meats and by-products.”

Nationwide, weekly hog slaughter in last April 2020 was 36% lower than at the same point in 2019.

“The decline in processing affected the entire pork supply chain. At the farm, disruptions to processing resulted in higher variable costs and disturbances to the pipeline hog supplies, as hogs have scheduled slaughter times to coincide with when they are finished (when they reach slaughter weight),” said the ERS.

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