COVID-19 outbreaks at meat processors could mean lean times at Mich. farms, markets

Matt Cary lost one of his 100 beef cattle over the four weeks they’ve waited to be sent to slaughterhouses that have become overwhelmed as the COVID-19 outbreak forces them to reduce their capacity or shut down entirely.

“When you pay $1,600 for an animal like that, it hurts a little bit,” said Cary, the 46-year-old farmer who runs Cary’s Pioneer Farms in Alma with his father and brother.

“It’s not unheard of, but it probably wouldn’t have been lost because it would have sold. They’re just like humans. They get fatter and more out of shape like what we want for them to go to market, but there’s a higher risk for casualty.”

COVID-19 outbreaks at meatpacking plants in Michigan have forced some to temporarily close or reduce their production. That’s meant falling compensation for farmers who are unable to send their livestock to market — repercussions of which could be seen for years to come, according to those in the industry. And experts predict the United States will see rising prices of meat — if not shortages — on grocery store shelves.

“There’s a real issue there,” said David Hennessey, a professor at Michigan State University College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. “There won’t be meat if those plants shut down.”

Metro Detroit grocers are seeing the effects: “We have heard there is going to be some shortages in the coming weeks,” said Jacob Garmo, co-owner and CEO of Village Market in Grosse Pointe Farms. “I think one category of meat that we see the shortage coming in is pork, but we have a full supply of meat now.”

In response, President Donald Trump this week invoked his powers under the Korean War-era Defense Production Act to order the government to take appropriate action “to ensure that meat and poultry processors continue operations” consistent with guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Many in the food industry greeted the move with support: “We appreciate he is using some of the authority to keep plants open and provide additional workers to keep the system functioning,” said Ernie Birchmeier, commodities sector manager for the Michigan Farm Bureau. “We hope it will improve workers’ safety conditions and keep the supply chain moving.”

Labor groups, however, have responded unfavorably. Michigan has at least 60 reported COVID-19 cases at meatpacking facilities, according to the BlueGreen Alliance, a partnership of unions and environmental organizations.

“The reason we are seeing disruption in our food supply system is because workers are getting sick on the job, and some of them are dying,” said Jason Walsh, BlueGreen’s executive director, who added that OSHA should create enforceable workplace standards for the food industry. “Unless you protect those workers, our food supply will continue to be disrupted.”

The alliance says there are insufficient personal protective equipment and testing. Processing-center employees often work closely together on lines that move the cuts of meat.

“It’s a very messy business,” Hennessey said. “It’s hard to maintain sanitation at those plants. The meat industry has sanitary issues pretty much everywhere it operates. It’s the nature of the beast.”

Outbreaks at Herburck’s Poultry Ranch in Saranac resulted in 72 employees and non-employees in four central Michigan counties testing positive for the virus, WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids reported on Wednesday. The company has been testing its employees.

“The vast majority of these positive cases originate from an isolated group of employees from our night shift bird crew,” Greg Herbruck, the company’s president, said in a statement. “Most were asymptomatic or showed very mild symptoms, if any. None of the positive cases have sought medical treatment and have been recovering at home.”

Others who have recovered are returning to work, he added. The company says it’s implementing measures consistent with CDC guidelines, including providing masks, safety glasses and rubber gloves for employees while at work and at home.

Other meat-processing facilities such as Brazil-based JBS S.A.’s beef plant in Plainwell have had to shut down operations temporarily or reduce production rates to allow for social distancing. Cattle slaughter nationwide is down 32% from a March high and 27% year-over-year, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation.

“We thank the administration for acknowledging the important role food companies serve and ensuring that our food supply will remain resilient during these unprecedented times,” said JBS in a statement, adding health and safety of employees is its primary focus.

Now, hogs are going to the slaughterhouse for half their usual value, and prices for livestock and dairy are down, too, said Birchmeier of the Michigan Farm Bureau.

“That has real economic impact on our farmers,” he said. “No business can operate in the red for too long before you run into financial difficulties.”

A large chicken processing company in Delaware and Maryland had to kill 2 million chickens earlier this month because of a virus-related labor shortage, according to the Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc. Michigan farmers have not had to resort to such actions, Birchmeier said.

“Our farmers are still farming on a daily basis,” he said.

But there could be long-term implications from the financial challenges. In addition to troubled cash-flow and additional costs from having to feed their animals for longer, farmers might not be able to purchase replacement livestock. For the beef industry, cattle have a long production cycle.

“Beef producers make a decision now for breeding an animal that is going to have a calf in nine months and not weaned until six months later,” said George Quackenbush, executive director of the Michigan Beef Industry Commission. “There is a multi-year impact that will be seen as a result of COVID-19.”

And consumers soon could be paying higher prices. Wholesale American beef is at a record high of $330.82 per 100 pounds, a 62% gain from a February low, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department. Pork prices are up 5.7% to their highest since November.

Increases in wholesale prices eventually could affect even retailers, such as Ann Arbor-based Busch’s Fresh Food Market, who do not rely on large corporate meat processors. Most of Busch’s product comes from local and regional farmers who do their own processing.

“We have absolutely no problems at the moment,” said Todd Robinson, Busch’s vice president of marketing. “Some of our packaged lunch meats come from larger companies, and for example, bacon, we might have half of what we normally receive.”

Busch’s has seen a slight increase in meat sales, Robinson said. Industry experts are warning consumers against panic-buying.

“There is plenty of beef and proteins in the marketplace,” the beef industry’s Quackenbush said. “There’s no reason to panic, and avoiding that urge will ensure there is plenty for our neighbors and all consumers across the U.S.”

Meanwhile, farmers such as Cary are doing what they can to get by. He has adjusted the feed for his cows so they do not become too fat for processing and hopes to get 300 cows there within the next week.

“The American farmer has not stopped,” Cary said. “We will do our job no matter what it takes to produce that safe food.”

bnoble@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble

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