Coronavirus outbreaks at meatpacking plants have created a backlog of animals ready for slaughter but with nowhere to go. Farmers are having to cull them.
By Michael Corkery and David Yaffe-Bellany
Published on May 14, 2020
One Minnesota hog farmer sealed the cracks in his barn and piped carbon dioxide through the ventilation system. Another farmer has considered gassing his animals after loading them into a truck. And a third shot his pigs in the head with a gun. It took him all day.
And yet, around the United States, scores of people are struggling to find enough to eat, lining up at food banks after losing their jobs in the economic fallout of the pandemic. Distribution issues have caused grocery stores and fast-food restaurants to run low on meat.
The waste of viable pigs at a time of great need is causing both deep economic loss and emotional anguish across the nation’s pork industry.
The number of pigs being slaughtered but not used for food is staggering. In Iowa, the nation’s largest pork-producing state, agricultural officials expect the backlog to reach 600,000 hogs over the next six weeks. In Minnesota, an estimated 90,000 pigs have been killed on farms since the meat plants began closing last month.
But the obligation to kill the animals themselves, and then get rid of the carcasses, is wrenching. Last month, Senator Chuck Grassley and other leaders in Iowa asked the White House’s coronavirus task force to provide mental health resources to hog farmers, as well as money to compensate them for the pigs they have had to kill and not turned into meat. On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of 13 senators sent a letter to congressional leaders asking for funding for pig farmers and warning that “failure to have a sensible and orderly process for thinning the herd will lead to animal health issues, environmental issues, and pork producers going out of business.”
The White House has taken some steps to address the problem. Last month, President Trump issued an executive order that gave the Department of Agriculture more authority to keep plants running. And the federal government has announced plans to buy $100 million a month in surplus meat. But even as some meat plants reopen, it most likely won’t be enough or come in time to prevent all of the waste.
“The economic part of it is damaging,” said Steve Meyer, a pork industry analyst. “But the emotional and psychological and spiritual impact of this will have much longer consequences.”
Pigs are not the only casualties. Last month, a farmer in Minnesota watched
an egg-processing company gas 61,000 of his birds. The poultry processor Allen Harim Foods sent a letter to farmers in April
announcing plans to begin “depopulating flocks in the field.” In all, it killed nearly two million birds
on farms in Delaware and Maryland last month.
Like the dumping of fresh milk and destruction of fresh vegetables on farms,
the waste of viable livestock shows how finely calibrated and concentrated the American agricultural system has become after decades of consolidation. There are relatively few plants equipped to process most of the nation’s pork, leaving farmers with no real alternatives when the largest facilities close.
Mass-produced pigs live on a tight schedule. They are raised to grow to more than 300 pounds over roughly six months.
But the market for live, 300-pound-plus pigs is limited, making the killings necessary on many farms.
Dean Meyer, a farmer in northwest Iowa, shares a collection of sows with eight other farmers. By the middle of April, he and his partners were running out of space.
On a conference call in mid-April, the farmers reluctantly agreed to begin killing piglets. Since then, managers supervising the sows have killed about 125 baby pigs a week, or 5 percent of newborns.
“It’s totally against our nature,” Mr. Meyer said. “The natural thing is to keep everything alive, and give the best care we can.”