Skyrocketing grocery demand has led to shelves bereft of eggs and chicken. News reports detail meat shortages and — yikes! — the coming high price of bacon. Last month, President Donald Trump ordered meat-processing plants hit hard by COVID-19 to stay in operation.
Yet Minnesota farmers are taking the last-resort step of euthanizing their animals. Why is this happening?
The short answer is that meat-processing plants shut down because of employee outbreaks of COVID-19. The loss of institutional markets like schools and restaurants has thrown a wrench into the system. You can’t sell gallons of fluid eggs to a family the way you can a larger institution.
Look more closely, though, and a more troubling picture comes into focus. Processing plants have been forced to reopen, but the president’s order said nothing about health and safety measures to protect plant workers: slowing down production lines, creating physical distances, staggering breaks, adding hand-washing stations, testing and providing personal protective equipment. These measures are vital to employee safety and public health and must be required if we expect the plants to stay open.
These safety measures will likely, under the current slaughter capacity in Minnesota, result in less meat being processed, less meat on store shelves and higher prices, as the current system prioritizes efficiency over worker safety and producer payment.
The resulting higher prices, though burdensome, will better reflect meat’s true cost rather than externalizing the cost of safety measures onto workers.
Farmers also bear burdens under the current system. They are forced to sell in a noncompetitive, captive market, often at prices below the cost of production. Livestock such as hogs and poultry have a limited window in which they can be reasonably processed. Thus, current slaughter capacity is forcing the gut-wrenching choice to euthanize. Hardworking farmers — most of whom care deeply about their animals and their welfare — are being failed by an unjust, fragile meat-processing system.
Should cheap meat to consumers, raised and processed on the backs of workers and farmers, be the end goal of our food system? No. The end goal of our food system should be to provide nutritious, safe, affordable food that respects and adequately compensates farmers, workers and local businesses all along the supply chain.
Continued concentration in the meatpacking industry has resulted in fewer market options and the mind-boggling fact that these mega-plants produce tens of millions of meat servings per day. Indeed, lack of antitrust enforcement in the meatpacking industry has been a major problem before the COVID-19 pandemic. Enforcement of antitrust laws such as the Packers and Stockyards Act, passed in the 1930s, can help turn this situation around. It’s the kind of bold action needed to restore fairness for farmers and workers.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison has joined 10 other state attorneys general in investigating antitrust issues with these mega-packers. And Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen and his staff have moved quickly to take steps to aid farmers and the food supply. They are working hard to identify and expand farmer options for processing and have created a grant program for existing smaller processors to add more processing capacity. These are positive steps that can help create needed change in our food system.
As consumers, we can promote change with our food dollars. Supporting local growers helps build a more robust food-production system that offers greater resiliency, equity and fairness. It produces safer, more nutrient-dense meat. For those able, buying meat in bulk directly from a farmer can provide the highest-quality product at a competitive price. (The website minnesotagrown.com has a nifty search tool that allows consumers to find farmers in their area.)
Whether you buy directly from your farmer, subscribe to community supported agriculture, shop at farmers markets, buy Minnesota-grown products at your local grocery, support a food cooperative or buying club, or grow your own food, you are helping ensure delicious, safe, affordable food and fiber that ensures a decent living to farmers, workers and businesses all along the chain.
No farmer should ever be asked to euthanize an animal destined for market. Our food system should reflect the true cost of food that reflects a living wage to all who work to produce it. We must also work to ensure access to quality food to all on the income scale, so that the farmers and workers — and all in the community — can afford to buy it.
We know we can do this in a way that works equitably for all. It will take true leadership and a real push from consumers to make this vision a reality.
Theresa Keaveny is executive director of the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota.