As COVID-19 continues to surge across America, with the latest data showing that one in five Americans are now exposed to the highly contagious Omicron variant, the disease is severely impacting meat production. In fact, USDA reports that beef processors slaughtered 112,000 cattle on January 14, 2022, a decrease of approximately 6% from one year prior, and the lowest number recorded since October 2021. Additionally, pig slaughtering saw a decrease of 5% percent in 2021 over 2020 rates.
The reasoning is simple: The increasing rates of infection among workers are forcing meat plants to slow production, and the government isn’t able to staff its slaughterhouse inspections adequately enough.
Paula Schelling-Soldner, chair of the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals, which represents approximately 6,400 meat and poultry inspectors, noted that USDA meatpacking inspectors are increasingly testing positive to COVID-19, and that has caused a slowing in production. “The positive tests within the plants in various locations are on the uprise, just as they are everywhere else,” she tells Food Quality & Safety. “It’s the inspectors and plant personnel, which is creating—in many cases—slower production.”
She added that the staffing issue is a concern across the country, leading to a lower supply of meat and poultry, and higher prices.
These are the same problems that the industry experienced at the very beginning of the pandemic in the spring of 2020, and although things improved once vaccinations became available, it’s been tough to maintain a level of consistency.
The Biden administration is taking steps to address these issues by committing $1 billion to improving U.S. meat and poultry production, which includes $32 million dollars in grants to expand capacity and efficiency.