A pair of Purdue professors offer answers and insight on how COVID-19 is impacting the food supply chain and animal welfare.
Q. If there’s a surplus at the farm, why is there a shortage in the grocery store?
Why are farmers dumping milk and plowing under vegetable crops while grocery store shelves are bare? This happens when the processing and distribution sectors that turn raw farm commodities into the food we eat are disrupted. With 54% of food spending occurring in restaurants and cafeterias, and that sector of the economy nearly shut down, there was a dramatic spike in demand for food in grocery stores — a demand the industry was not prepared to meet. Dairies, for example, may package small cartons of milk for schools that are now closed and not have the cash and equipment necessary to package milk in gallon jugs.
Q. Why would farmers throw away food?
Despite the COVID-19 crisis, cows continued producing the same amount of milk. With restaurants and processors unable to take their usual quantities of agricultural products, farmers are left with few options. In some cases, products can be stored in warehouses or grain bins, but those aren’t options for perishable products. Sometimes farmers can donate to food banks. However, food banks don’t have the equipment or volunteers to take bulk quantities of raw milk, for example, and convert it to products we can consume. It’s also costly to harvest and transport food. The unfortunate result is that food is sometimes dumped, discarded or fed to livestock. No farmer takes this decision lightly. The recently passed CARES act includes some provisions for the government to buy excess production, which may provide some relief.
Q. Why are meat packing plants shutting down?
Most of the livestock and poultry slaughter in the United States occurs in a small number of large meat packing plants, and then products are distributed to tens of thousands of grocery stores and restaurants around the country. For example, there are more than 60,000 pork producers in the U.S., but roughly 60% of all hogs are processed in just 15 large pork-packing plants. These packing plants are designed to efficiently and affordably process animals for food consumption, and each one has a large workforce. Several packing plants were temporarily shut down when a number of workers were diagnosed with COVID-19. Employees work in refrigerated buildings in close quarters, where there is a high potential to spread the COVID-19 virus among workers. An important note: There is no evidence that COVID-19 is spread through food.
Q. What are the impacts of packing plant shutdowns for farmers and consumers?
U.S. meat processing capacity has been significantly diminished. Due to shutdowns and slowdowns related to COVID-19, packing plants are no longer able to take as many cattle and hogs, the price of livestock has plummeted, and farmers and ranchers are left without a destination for their animals.
While producers are facing lower prices for livestock, consumers are facing higher prices for meat products. With packing plants unable to process as many animals, there is less meat on the market, and competition among groceries to secure supply is pushing up retail prices. Retailers may dip into cold storage inventory if they run out of stock, and the beef, pork and poultry we typically export could be left in the U.S. for domestic consumption. Still, consumers will likely need to remain flexible and adapt to meat product availability and prices.
Q. Are we going to run out of food?
No. Agriculture is a seasonal business. The corn, wheat, soy and rice we are eating today was harvested and stored months ago. Food production is widely distributed across the United States. So, even if one area of the country is hard hit by the coronavirus, production in other parts of the country will offset losses. The peak-demand observed in grocery stores in mid-March has largely subsided. While grocery sales initially increased 100% or more for many items, grocery buying is now only about 20% to 30% higher than this time last year. The challenges observed in the grocery store are not a result of insufficient food, but rather the difficulties in processing and distribution.
Q. How much of our food comes from abroad?
Although the U.S. exports more agricultural products than it imports, there are some food products for which we rely on farmers in other countries. Overall, only 11% of the food we eat in the United States comes from abroad, but this figure varies widely based on the food. Which foods might become scarce if the global flow of food subsides? Virtually all the coffee, cocoa and spices Americans consume come from abroad. Most of the fish and shellfish we consume is imported. And about half of fresh fruits, mainly bananas and grapes, are imported.
Q. Why euthanize the animals instead of just keeping them on farms?
The decision to euthanize large numbers of animals is a devastating last resort for farmers, who typically seek out all feasible alternatives before making such a decision. With processing plants unable to operate at capacity and some already temporarily shut down, farmers will make the difficult decision to euthanize.
Q. How will the animals be euthanized?
Euthanizing animals safely, humanely and in a timely manner is an enormous challenge. Farmers will work with their veterinarians to use American Veterinary Medical Association-approved methods that result in the quickest, most humane method of euthanasia possible for the types and ages of animals on their premises.