Meat processing plants have become the latest hot spot in the novel coronavirus outbreak, sparking concerns that our food supply chain is breaking. But is it really? CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta turns to the experts for help. Dianne Gallagher, a national correspondent for CNN, and Julie Niederhoff, associate professor of supply chain management at Syracuse University, walk us through our food supply chain, step-by-step, and explain why there’s no need to panic buy just yet.
You can listen on your favorite podcast app or read the transcript below.
Maria Gonzalez (at Atlanta Food Bank): I really need something to eat.
Isabel Couras (at Atlanta Food Bank): With this situation going on, you know, it’s too much … But at least we have somebody that’s feeding us and giving us food.
CNN “OutFront” Anchor Erin Burnett: New tonight, President Trump signing an executive order to keep meat processing plants open, amid growing concerns about the nation’s food supply.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta: We’ve been hearing a lot of things lately about how the pandemic is affecting our food supply chain.
We have seen lines of cars, sometimes for miles, waiting at food banks.
Atlanta Food Bank volunteer: You know, we’re hoping that the line isn’t tremendously past 2,000. We know where we’re going to cut off and hopefully get everybody as much food as we possibly can.
Gupta: With millions of Americans newly unemployed, more and more families are turning to soup kitchens or food pantries to get by.
And then, you hear something like this:
Jen Sorenson, Iowa Select Farms communications director: Our hogs have been backing up for over four weeks now. We’re exhausting, you know, every plan, every resource to prevent farmers from having to euthanize our hogs so we’re definitely in a terrible situation of peril right now and we’re asking for help.
Gupta: That was Jen Sorenson, of Iowa Select Farms, talking about the possibility of killing hogs because farmers can’t maintain them anymore. The National Pork Board is estimating that 1.5 million hogs will have to be killed in the coming weeks.
So what’s going on here?
Well, three of the country’s largest pork processing plants are closing indefinitely because of outbreaks in the workforce.
Together, these plants make up about 15% of pork production.
Because of this, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has issued new guidelines to ensure the workers’ health and safety, including setting up barriers between workers, staggering shifts and making sure everyone is working at least 6 feet apart.
The country’s largest meatpacking union estimates that 20 workers have died of the virus and at least 6,000 additional members have been impacted by it.
Tyson’s largest plant, in Waterloo, Iowa, is linked to almost half of that county’s cases.
There are obviously significant health concerns. But this week, President Trump still signed an executive order, compelling meat processing plants to remain open.
CNN National Correspondent Nick Watt: Meat processing plants in many states have now closed after outbreaks. Tyson, we’re told, was planning to close 80% of production. The CEO says the food supply chain is breaking.
Gupta: That’s a phrase I’ve heard a lot these days – the supply chain is breaking – and today I want to find out exactly what that means.
I want to know if I can still get beef and pork at my local grocery store. And why can’t we just have the farmers send excess food or product directly to food banks?
I’m Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, and this is “Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction.”
Gupta: For today’s episode, I’ve asked National Correspondent Dianne Gallagher to share her expertise. She’s been covering the food and agriculture industry for the network.
And joining Dianne is Julie Niederhoff, associate professor of supply chain management at Syracuse University.
Together, they’re going through the country’s food supply chain, link by link, from farmers to food banks, to answer the question: Is the food supply chain breaking? And what does that mean for you?
CNN National Correspondent Dianne Gallagher: I want to cut straight to the chase here, because I think that everybody has been concerned about what they’re hearing. When they hear “food supply chain,” they think, “Oh, my goodness, what does this mean for me?” So, Julie, are we running out of meat?
Syracuse Univeristy Associate Professor of Supply Chain Management Julie Niederhoff: No, not anytime real soon.
Gallagher: So we don’t need to go panic buy and stock up on 40 pounds of meat in a freezer somewhere.
Niederhoff: No. Grocery stores are saying that they’re not having any trouble finding meat. If it becomes a problem for them, we’ll know.
Gallagher: Are we likely to see a limited variety and a changing selection of meat over the next few, however long this is going to go on?
Niederhoff: Yes, there will definitely be an impact. You know, if nothing else, we’re going to see less of certain brands because we know that those particular locations are closed. And if that’s the one that you really like, if that’s the cut that you really like, that might be a little harder to find until they get back up online. We’re down 25% in pork and 10% in beef. And that is a completely different thing than being completely out.
Gallagher: I kind of want to start from the beginning. The food chain is vulnerable. The food supply chain is vulnerable, but it’s, as a whole, not in crisis. But there is a segment of it that is on the brink of, if not already in crisis. And that’s at the very beginning of the food chain, right, if we walk through this. We’re talking about the farmers here. What is it like to be a farmer right now, especially a livestock farmer, during this pandemic?
Niederhoff: It’s a big risk. Farming is always a bit of a gamble.
A farmer depends only on himself, and the land and the weather. And unfortunately, the way our food supply chains, our food industry has developed over time, the farmers bear the majority of the risk and get a very, very small cut of the profits.
This particular issue is hurting them because if they can’t sell their meat at normal market prices, that market price starts to drop. They’re already getting a pretty small return per animal.
Typically you’re looking at four or five, six hundred dollars to raise an animal, and you sell it for six, seven, eight hundred dollars. So you’re only looking at two or three hundred dollars profit. If that price starts to drop – and that little bit of profit that they were supposed to be getting per animal is gone.
Gallagher: They’re talking about potentially having to euthanize upwards of seven hundred thousand pigs a week if they can’t get the supply chain straightened out. Why?
Niederhoff: Right, yeah. They need a place to be. We can’t overcrowd the barns. Most of the barns are heavily utilized because it’s a big fixed cost. So now all of a sudden we have animals who are – they’re not moving out and more animals are potentially coming in. But even if they’re not, the animals are still there. They’re getting bigger. They need more space.
Gallagher: It’s hard to kind of compute those images, though, of people talking about meat shortages, and then hearing about seven hundred thousand hogs a week, that may potentially have to be euthanized and not used for food, but potentially turned into fertilizer or disposed of somehow.
Niederhoff: So, yeah, I mean, unfortunately, just having someone bring a pig to the grocery store doesn’t fix the problem. We need those middle stages. So we have it in one form, but we can’t quite get it to the other form. And so what are you going to do?
Gallagher: If we kind of continue on this road down the food supply chain here: We have the farmers. When it leaves the farm, where does the food go from there?
Niederhoff: So pretty much all food goes from the farmers to some kind of processing. But animals have to be slaughtered and prepared to go to whatever packaging or butchering facility is going to prepare it into the cuts and styles of meat that we like.
And and milk has to go through pasteurization and homogenization processes and almost all of that processing has some level of either USDA (US Department of Agriculture) or FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) certification and testing and consumer protections, which are important. And so we can’t just go from the farm to the consumers without going through those stages.
Gallagher: Explain to me a little bit about why some of these plants are not, I guess, set up even to package correctly for grocery stores.
Niederhoff: So I go to the store, I buy a pound of meat. It’s labeled, it’s packaged for that 1-pound purchase, 2-pound purchase, something like that. I buy 12 eggs. I buy a gallon of milk. And so the stuff that comes through that processing plant is going to go through the packaging or bottling or containerization process to be put into those sort of manageable sizes. They have to have specific labels on them that include very specific information.
If it’s going into the food service industry, the commercial foods, so going into cafeterias and restaurants and in these big bulk purchases, what they might do is they might make a 50 pound bag of cheese, they might make a 6-gallon bag of milk. It’s the same product. It’s just not packaged in a sort of consumable way. Most people can’t bring home a 25-pound bag of cheese and do something reasonable with that.
Gallagher: Why can’t some of these large bulk packages of food just be sent off to these food pantries?
Niederhoff: Most of them, they can. So, again, it comes down a little bit to what the state-by-state laws are about how food has to be labeled.
But it’s been a little tricky because the regulations around labeling from the FDA and the USDA need to be followed. And so you know nobody was quite sure how to go about doing that right away.
What was allowed? And that’s really the problem. If I’ve got milk on one side of the supply chain. Yes, it could go through, and it could then be somehow packaged and sent to the food bank. But somebody has to compensate the workers for doing that extra work. And unless we’ve got donors or federal dollars kind of backing that process up, there’s nobody who’s just going to do it for the goodwill.
Gallagher: And you mentioned the workers and I want to talk about them. Why are we seeing so many outbreaks at these meat processing plants? What is it about the conditions there that make it so easy for this to spread?
Niederhoff: So we know the things that help prevent the spread of the virus, and one of them is distance from other people. And that’s not something that works very well in this environment.
We’re also seeing workers saying that they’re not getting adequate PPE (personal protective equipment) and they’re not getting some of the other support that would make it a lot safer for them.
Gallagher: We’ve been told by several workers that social distancing, especially on the line, on the kill line, that it’s just very difficult for them to even attempt to socially distance, even once these Plexiglas dividers have been put in.
So now we’re here with these outbreaks that have happened. We have these plants shutting down because of massive numbers of employees who are sick or who are calling out of work because they’re afraid that they’re going to get sick.
I think when you’re listening to this at home, the question I’m most frequently asked is, does that mean that my meat is OK? Should I be concerned about this?
Niederhoff: Scientists have said repeatedly that it’s not a foodborne illness, and so there’s no reason to worry that an employee who is sick is somehow going to pass that to you through the meat that you’re now eating, days or weeks since it was processed. The concern is for the employee.
Gallagher: In what way could the federal government help get rid of this bottleneck that we have going on right now with the meat supply?
Niederhoff: If the federal government can find a way to help these plants open safely more quickly, by offering loans, by offering resources to get these plants open, in a way that is safe for the employees and their communities to still be able to work, then that would be an assistance to fixing the supply chain problem. If they can get access to the necessary personal protective equipment, if they can get access to whatever it is that they need to get these plants operational sooner.
Gallagher: But more than anything, it sounds like you can’t open facilities unless you have a healthy and safe workforce.
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Niederhoff: Yeah, no. And that’s the problem right? You can’t force someone to be healthy. You can’t force someone to not be, not have this Covid-19. Right? So if people are sick, demanding that they open the plant is not going to fix the problem.
Gallagher: So let’s talk about food banks, because I think some of the most difficult images for anybody to see are these farmers dumping milk, plowing over their crops, hearing about hogs that have to be euthanized that can’t go to grocery stores or to food banks. How do food banks get their food and why can’t we get the food that is there to them? Where’s the breakdown in the process?
Niederhoff: Yeah. So a lot of the food that comes into food banks is actually procured through the USDA. They will go in and sort of buy up leftover products from farmers and that keeps the farmers sort of protected. It provides sort of a backup market for those goods. And then those can go into these food banks. Other ways that food banks tend to get food is by grocery stores or restaurants or whoever having leftover food.
Gallagher: The state of Iowa has this new program that they’re debuting starting on May 1 called Pass the Pork, which is trying to link up farmers with processors that are in operation and staying longer hours to try to get those immediately to people locally. But overall, this is not something we typically see to kind of, I guess, sustain these food banks.
Niederhoff: Yeah. We have a lot of rules and policies in place to largely to protect consumers, you know, health and safety violations and making sure regulations are consistent within a state or across state lines. But it really does create very rigid structures of how we can move things across different points in the supply chain.
Gallagher: It sounds like factory and farm and processing plant workers are the ones who really need the protection. And the concern right here. It takes so many people just to put food on the table.
Niederhoff: Right. So many people across so many states, very likely. Your chicken might have come from one state, and then processed in a different state and packaged in a different state and now shipped to you in a different state.
But every step of that way is handled and performed by people. And often they are the people who are sort of the most vulnerable within our society, the most overlooked. That’s really the vulnerability we’ve been seeing here.
It’s not that the companies are going out of business, it’s that the people have gotten sick, right? It’s the supply chain is at risk because the people within the supply chain are vulnerable. And that’s the challenge.
They deserve to be able to stay healthy and go home and keep their families healthy. And so, if we can’t find a way to help them stay healthy, then we’re failing them.
Gallagher: And it sounds like at that point, that’s when we will have serious problems with our food supply chain, that if the human aspect of it begins to fall apart, and falls apart to a greater level, that’s when we’re really talking about a crisis.
Gupta: These days, I know a lot of people are more worried than ever about food and how we can feed ourselves and our families.
It’s important to remember that so much goes into putting food on our tables, and that every step of the way, there are people involved in making that happen. And we need to be able to take care of them.
If I’ve learned anything from how the nation’s food supply chain works, it’s that we can’t leave anyone behind – that’s the only way we as a country can ever get back on our feet.
We’ll be back tomorrow. Thanks for listening.
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