Auburn University poultry science faculty members Bob Norton, Ken Macklin and Dianna Bourassa comment on the current state of the food supply, poultry plant processing operations and the situation faced by poultry producers.

What is the current state of the food supply?

The food supply is significantly stressed, but still secure. It will not collapse. Starvation will not occur. Perspective is needed in understanding this very complex situation, which is similar to other areas of business, but also unique to food and agriculture. All businesses which are heavily dependent upon people are experiencing problems, as some employees fall ill and others test positive for the virus. Animal agriculture is different from other businesses in that the “products” they produce are living animals that must continue to be fed and watered, will continue to grow and must eventually be slaughtered and converted into the kind of meat products the consumer desires.

Agriculture and food processing companies are experiencing significant challenges. Workers falling ill and others being positive, but symptomless, for COVID-19 have caused an increasing number of meat processing plants to temporarily close. Companies are scrambling to modify facilities and processes, so as to be aligned with the Center of Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) recently released Interim Guidance for Meat and Poultry Processing Workers and Employers.

The problem with a closed processing plant is that the supply of animals is not slowed down—animals continue to mature to market weights and must be sent to processing, so that other animals also growing can follow in behind. The situation is akin to the conveyor belt skit made famous by Lucille Ball. Failure to keep up with the pace, causes problems to ensue. Meat processing companies have been forced in some cases to halt the movement of animals. In other cases, they have been forced to euthanize the animals, causing the loss of that animal protein. The important thing to emphasize here is that these unfortunate circumstances are temporary. Companies are modifying their facilities. Once that is complete, workers can return and animal processing can begin again. Animal processing in the United States is highly dependent upon people. Automation is difficult and very expensive. The current problems are likely to cause increased calls for further automation, which many companies are actually doing. Total conversion to automation is decades off. Even when maximized, however, some human involvement will continue to be required, since animals are not widgets—each is unique, even when apparently uniform in size and confirmation.

Some poultry processing plants have slowed or temporarily halted production due to COVID-19. How long will this stoppage last and what is the outlook for poultry products in the grocery store?

Poultry processing plants in many of the poultry regions of the country have slowed or temporarily halted production due to COVID-19. The situation is complex in that the problems with social distancing and transmission of the disease does not solely reside in the processing plants. It is common for the employees of processing plants to congregate outside the confines of work and in some cases, share living facilities and transportation. The processing plants are rapidly being modified to increase social distancing and provide barriers in working spaces and break rooms. These modifications will help protect workers at the plants, but cannot address the larger issues related to community spread. Community spread outside of work areas still remains a concern. It is hard to predict, with any precision, how long slowdowns will continue to affect the food processing industry.

President Trump’s executive order under the Defense Production Act given on April 28 compels meat processing companies to keep their facilities open. The authority of this order designates that food processing plants are parts of critical infrastructures, and therefore essential for the wellbeing of the nation. The authorities also make possible federal assistance in the form of access to the national stockpiles for personal protective equipment (PPE) as well as some forms of financial assistance. Had these authorities not been enacted, the United States faced the very serious prospect of large-scale closures of meat processing, which if sustained would have dramatically, but temporarily impacted the food supply. Even given the order, it is too early to determine the effects. Certainly, the food processing plants will stay open, but the companies will continue to have to deal with all of the changes made necessary by COVID-19. It is possible full capacity may not be regained until a vaccine is available large scale, enabling all the workforce to return. A vaccine will hopefully sometime in late 2020 or by end of first quarter 2021.

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Regarding grocery stores and retail food:

As indicated, companies are moving rapidly to comply with the newest guidelines from the CDC and OSHA. The goal will be to resume previous levels of processing, as quickly as feasible. States are also developing guidelines for reopening the economy. Grocery stores and retail food were never closed, with the exception of small businesses that could not survive the economic downturn that has accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic. That being said, businesses were economically damaged. Sit-down restaurant establishments in particular have been dramatically impacted. It is quite possible that a substantial number of these will not survive, even if the economy begins to reengage. Fast-food chains however have survived and in some cases thrived, as Americans continued to exercise their penchant for these food offerings. Fast-food business models also had previously been adapted to drive-up window food delivery, giving them further advantage over restaurants that did not have that capability.

Early in this pandemic, grocery stores struggled with keeping products on the shelves, not because the food chain logistics were failing, but because of the level of consumer demand, which was unprecedented and widespread. With the number of food processing plants closing, the situation has grown more complex, but continues to represent a temporary condition. Consumers are used to seeing shelves and freezers full. Empty shelves and freezers are fortunately not permanent, but instead represent temporary inconveniences that will be fixed over the short- to medium-term. Consumers will on occasion need to adapt their buying habits to include whatever meat product may be present at the time in the store. This is new for the American consumer, but we have confidence in their resilience. Consumers will learn to adapt. For instance, in a recent visit to a large grocery chain, fresh poultry products were not available, while the frozen section was normally stocked. Consumers will continue to be inconvenienced for a while longer, but rest assured shelves will continue to be stocked with food, just perhaps not the variety of products available before the pandemic.

What will be the impact on poultry farmers? What about beef and pork producers?

An easy way to think about animal agriculture in the United States is to imagine a hypothetical conveyor belt. Producers grow the animals that are placed on the conveyor belt that carries the animals through the processing plants, where they are converted into animal protein, in this case meat products. Once processed the conveyor belt carries the meat products to warehouses and freezers, while other conveyor belts remove these products, places them into the logistical distribution system and transports them to the end user, whether the retail consumer, who purchases them from the supermarket, or the restaurant or food services user, who purchases them from a wholesaler and then serves the consumer in their establishments. Animal production through processing to the consumer is a continuum. A disruption at any point, for any reason, slows the system and can potentially cause backlogs. If the disruptions are long, the producer is affected. If the animals are owned by the producer, they are responsible for the costs of continued feeding and care of the animals. If the animals are owned by a food company, and the producer is a contract grower, the costs of continued feeding and care are borne across both the company and the grower. Prolonged delays in being able to send animals into the food chain can cause economic costs, where sadly it is less expensive to euthanize the animals, rather than continue to feed and care for them and absorb those costs. This type of situation is particularly problematic for poultry growers, since the birds mature so rapidly. It is also serious with hog operations, which are largely confinement operations. In both of those cases the animals can actually outgrow their housing, forcing the producer to make serious decisions. Cattle operations are less susceptible, but not immune to disruptions in the processing schedules. This is why it is in everyone’s interest to fix the problems and resume meat processing, as quickly as possible.

If a grocery store runs low on meat products, what alternatives exist for protein in a daily diet?

Animal protein is available in many varieties and forms. If a particular cut or species of meat is not available, a savvy consumer can substitute another cut of meat or perhaps go to another type of animal protein, like cheese, or alternatively a plant protein substitute, such as soy protein. Beef, pork, chicken and fish are all essential elements of a healthy diet. Most animal proteins are often times interchangeable and can be cooked so that it minimally impacts the menu. Also, animal proteins can be combined, such as hamburger and cheese. Portion control can also be used creatively, so that meat becomes a compliment to other nutritious food choices such as pasta. Meat can also be combined with vegetables and potatoes in stews and soups. Frozen meats can also be substituted for fresh cuts. The American consumer has numerous options that could be used in the face of temporary supply issues. There certainly is no reason to panic. Meat products will not disappear from the American table. The meat processing industry is working very hard to deal with the issues being encountered with the COVID-19 pandemic. Be assured that solutions are being found and meat processing will again soon be operating at the rates it has in the past. Some patience is needed now, but the food shelves, refrigerators and freezers will once again look like they have in the past.